The 2012 Orange Bowl kicks off tomorrow night at 8pm. Here's what the key storylines will be:
What the Orange Bowl means for the West Virginia Mountaineers:
Validation on a national stage. West Virginia, and West Virginians in general, view themselves as maligned in the national spotlight. Usually the only mention of the Mountaineers comes in reference to a slumping Big East, or the school's inability to make a coaching hire that doesn't embarrass the school in the process. The lone bright spot has been the team's two shocking victories in BCS Bowl Games, first under Rich Rodriguez and then under Bill Stewart as an interim coach. In each game, the world thought the ‘Eers didn't stand a chance. This year's Orange Bowl is a little different, since all of college football is utterly indifferent towards an ACC/Big East matchup. This game is a BCS bowl game only because it was contracted to work out that way. That said, for the Mountaineers to beat the Tigers and to advance to 3-0 in BCS Bowls would be a huge boost for the program as they head to the Big 12.
Dana Holgorsen can justify his hiring. Last season, Bill Stewart went 9-3 and won a share of the Big East title. This season, Dana Holgorsen went 9-3 and won a share of the Big East title. The only difference in the two seasons is that Holgorsen was lucky enough to back into a BCS game by being tied atop the Big East with more other teams than Stewart. While most WVU fans would find the notion that Holgorsen has anything else to prove totally ludicrious, this writer does not. In fact, anyone who watched Holgorsen's offense sputter and struggle to score over the last two months of the season must draw some comparisons between the two. If Holgorsen can get a BCS win, then the debate is pretty much over in Morgantown. If he loses, the Stewart apologists will be very loud this offseason.
What the Mountaineers need to do to win:
Get the offense rolling. The 900 pound gorilla in any WVU fan's room is the struggles of Dana Holgorsen's vaunted high-flying offensive scheme. While WVU rolled up on opponents early in the year, the back half of the schedule saw their points per game average drop by nearly 25% to under 30 points per game. In the season's first half, the Mountaineer offense averaged over 40, but it's slowed to a crawl since then. It's pretty inexplicable how WVU has gotten worse on offense so far this season, but it's happened. Mountaineer fans will need Geno Smith to make good decisions in the pocket, something that has eluded him much of his career, and they would also like to see their team score early in the game. If West Virginia gets behind early in the Orange Bowl, it could spell doom for the Mountaineers chances.
Continue the ascent of the defense. While the offense has struggled, Jeff Casteel's defense has gone out and won football games for WVU. In what could be Casteel's last game as WVU defensive coordinator before joining his old boss Rodriguez at Arizona, his unit will be counted on to do some serious heavy lifting. Casteel's unit held opponents to under 24 points per game down the stretch this season, and a similar effort will be needed to keep WVU in the game tomorrow. Slowing down the Tigers will be key, and it will be nearly impossible for WVU to win if the defense doesn't come to play.
What stands in their way:
Injuries. The Mountaineers have been plagued by injuries from the troubling to the ridiculous. WVU will be without running back Dustin Garrison who was injured during bowl week practice and safety Terence Garvin who had been injured earlier in bowl preparation. While the Mountaineers have a couple of decent options to play in Garrison's place, Garvin will be harder to replace and was a key player in the defense's late season revival. And from the ridiculous file: WVU also lost a walk on wide receiver this week when he broke his leg on a jet ski at a Miami beach bowl party. West Virginia fans everywhere are relieved that Holgorsen was smart enough to keep Geno Smith off of the water.
Tajh Boyd. Oh yeah, there's another team in this game, and they just so happen to be led by a quarterback who had committed to West Virginia before pulling out and heading to Clemson. Boyd has been sensational this season and is the lone reason behind the Tigers' revival in 2011. For West Virginia to be successful, they will have to contain the athletic Boyd and keep him in the pocket and under pressure. The success of WVU on defense this season has been directly tied to pressuring the quarterback. If Boyd has plenty of time to survey the scene from the pocket, then it could lead to a lot of points on the board and big hole for the Mountaineers.