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January 3, 2008

Stewart the healing force Mountaineers needed

MORE: West Virginia overpowers OU | Schmitt breaks game open | Another BCS failure for Stoops
Box score | Past Fiesta Bowl results

GLENDALE, Ariz. West Virginia and its fans could finally enjoy a football game Wednesday, a nice respite from the drama and backbiting that have plagued the program since the messy departure of coach Rich Rodriguez in mid-December.

The Mountaineers made the most of their second BCS bowl appearance, upsetting Big 12 power Oklahoma 48-28 in an offensively charged Fiesta Bowl.

Nice guy interim coach Bill Stewart presided over the healing victory, a win fueled by the dazzling play of junior quarterback Pat White and the stunning running of freshman Noel Devine. WVU ripped gashes into the Sooners' defense with big plays all night: White's 79-yard touchdown pass to Tito Gonzales; Devine's 65-yard TD run; fullback Owen Schmitt's 57-yard rumble to the end zone.

After the Mountaineers built a 19-point lead late in the third quarter, Stewart wrapped his hands around White's helmet, then playfully butted the QB's head.

The lovefest was on. Later, Stewart reveled in the victory, hoisting the golden trophy above his head as he stood on the midfield stage at University of Phoenix Stadium while his players chanted, "Stew, Stew, Stew."

The placard in front of Stewart at the postgame news conference seemed to stress the interim tag for the 33-year veteran assistant charged with running the Mountaineers post-Rodriguez. None of the night's moments were lost on the 55-year-old.

"I never had a Gatorade bath before," Stewart, a New Martinsville, W.Va. native drawled. "It was special.

"To all the assistant coaches out there that never had it, this is for them. There's a whole lot of fine coaches out there better than me. I just got a chance to get into the batter's box tonight."

It got even more special Thursday morning when Stewart was named the permanent head coach.

Offensive player of the game
West Virginia quarterback Pat White made plays with his arm and his legs. He completed 10 of 19 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns - one a 79-yard strike to Tito Gonzales, the other a 21-yard hookup with Darius Reynaud. White's wizardry of the spread option offense helped the Mountaineers net a school bowl record 525 yards of total offense.
Early exit
Mountaineers running back Steve Slaton was forced out of the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury in the first quarter. He had one carry for -2 yards.
Unsung hero
Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Lofton had 15 tackles, second-best in Sooners bowl game history. It was the ninth time this season Lofton has had double digits in tackles, which established a school record.
What this means for West Virginia
The Mountaineers showed they could remain focused despite the departure of coach Rich Rodriguez and the disappointment of falling to Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. They finish a respectable 11-2, and with the knowledge they return a ton of talent. West Virginia should be a force in the Big East and the national rankings next season.
What this means for Oklahoma
The Sooners have now lost the Fiesta Bowl in consecutive season each time as prohibitive favorites. This one doesn't have the same sting as last season's overtime loss to Boise State, but it probably cost OU a chance to finish No. 2 in the final polls and go into next year as the preseason No. 1. Coach Bob Stoops' play calling and questionable decision to attempt an on-side kick, which failed, in the third quarter will be debated in and around Norman.
Owen Schmitt's 57-yard TD run in the second quarter set a WVU bowl record. It was the longest run of his career. Noel Devine eclipsed Schmitt with his 65-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Pat White's 150-yard rushing day marked the fifth time in his past six games he has run for 100 or more yards. He had 326 yards of total offense. Tito Gonzales's 79-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter was the longest in WVU bowl history. It was a career-long catch for Gonzales and a career-long completion for White. The Big East has now won three consecutive BCS bowl games WVU over Oklahoma in 2008 Fiesta, Louisville over Wake Forest (2007 Orange) and WVU over Georgia (2006 Sugar). Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford had a rough day, tossing an interception and being sacked three times. But he set the NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes in a season with 36 after throwing for two scores against the Mountaineers.
West Virginia's vaunted spread option attack helped his cause with its dominant performance. The Mountaineers riddled the Sooners for 525 yards of total offense. At the forefront were White (150 yards passing, 176 passing, two touchdowns) and Devine (108 yards rushing, two touchdowns).

"Credit goes to Pat White and Noel Devine," Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "They are great players and they played that way tonight."

The postgame celebratory scene for WVU was electric. Mountaineers fans refused to leave the stadium as they screamed for their team during the trophy presentation and hung on every word of their heroes.

It was a far cry from their last game, a 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh that cost WVU a shot at playing for the national championship. Though the mood in the state hasn't been reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys, Rodriguez's abrupt exit for Michigan has had more than a few in and around the program feuding. High-stakes donors and prominent politicians have joined the fray.

Some, including Arizona Diamondbacks owner and big Mountaineers donor Ken Kendrick, believe the WVU athletic department and administration didn't do enough to keep Rodriguez, the wunderkind coach, from bolting for Ann Arbor to succeed Lloyd Carr.

Others consider Rodriguez a traitor to his home state and alma mater and are incensed that the coach has refused to pay a $4 million contract buyout. The bitterness has been such that the university's Board of Governors has sued Rodriguez for the cash. That came after Rodriguez's lawyers indicated the coach would contest the buyout, saying the school was in breach of contract.

Such scandalous stuff doesn't play well in West Virginia, a proud and private state that doesn't like to air its dirty laundry in the media.

Former WVU football player and current West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin became heavily involved. Manchin, on the sideline for the Fiesta, spoke to Rodriguez about the separation on Christmas day, letting him know of the state's disappointment and hurt feelings. The governor has also played an intimate part in the search for Rodriguez's replacement. Manchin told a West Virginia radio station that a decision on the next coach could come "very quickly."

It did Thursday with Stewart beating out favorites including Yahoo! Sports college football analyst and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Central Michigan coach Butch Jones and Florida assistant Doc Holliday.

Stewart, who had not been asked to interview, guided this team through the turbulence after Rodriguez, kept them focused and directed the scintillating bowl win.

That was enough to take Stewart over the top. White said so after the Fiesta.

"He deserves it," White said. "A great man. A great coach. All the players respect him and all the players love him. You couldn't ask for a better man to lead us to victory today."

Make that victories.

Stewart can count on a bright future in Morgantown. The core of this 11-2 team likely returns including offensive catalysts White, standout running back Steve Slaton and Devine.

He should keep riding Rodriguez's brilliant offense while augmenting the defense and special teams.

Then the run at the national championship that many expected this season could come a year later with a new guy wearing the headset.

Gerry Ahern is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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