MORGANTOWN — In many ways, this was the game West Virginia was waiting on for far too many years, the game where people across the nation looked at the WVU football team and said, ‘Hey, they really belong in there with the big boys.’
Just before the game that weighed heavily on coach Neal Brown’s mind, putting it this way:
“We have to find out if we are at the point where we can challenge a champion.”
He found out that they could challenge them but couldn’t beat them, losing 16-13 on a 30-yard field goal by Gabe Brkic as the final second ticked off the click.
Oklahoma certainly is a champion as it has won or shared six straight Big 12 titles.
See, when you go back to the old days and you will see a Southern Conference team that could only find its way into The New York Times Sunday college roundups when it had Jerry West or Sam Huff performing. They were independent days, yes, but in those days they weren’t even the elite independents as Notre Dame and Army and Navy ruled the roost.
WVU was good, owns the 15th most victories of all-time ... but even that always comes with the explanatory phrase that it is the most wins by any team without a national championship.
WVU was good enough to get a couple of swings at that national title, but fate wasn’t about to cooperate. Following an undefeated 1988 season, the magnificent Major Harris suffered an injury against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Then, in 2007, they were looking at a title game against Ohio State once they brushed a pitiful Pitt aside in the season finale.
Instead, they lost as 28.5-point favorites and lost not only face but their coach.
Oh, along the way there were stunning victories, toppling No. 8 Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, beating No. 3 Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl after the Pitt debacle, laying 70 points on Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, topping No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2003, beating No. 4 Miami in 993 and so many others.
But somehow the Mountaineers could not keep from being dominated by teams at or near the top. They would come heart-stoppingly close at times, but never could win enough to say they were in the same class as Miami, against whom they were 3-7; or Penn State, against whom they were 9-48-2; or against Oklahoma, against whom they were 2-0 entering Saturday night’s game.
Since the polls were started in the ‘30s, WVU has gone just 8-62 against ranked teams on the road and have lost all 25 of their road games to Top 5 teams.
It wasn’t so much that they lost, but how ... a leaping miracle catch on 4th and 7 in Miami by Kellen Winslow kept a winning drive alive; an electrifying scramble by Michael Vick to set up a last second field goal.
It didn’t seem to matter what WVU did. Losses came in games with some of their greatest moments, Quincy Wilson’s catch and run over and through Miami defenders in the Winslow game; Tavon Austin setting the school record with 344 rushing yards in a 50-49 loss to Oklahoma; Justin Crawford gaining 33 yards on the ground in a 56-28 loss to the Sooners.
But the timing of this meeting with Oklahoma seemed right. They and Texas had just announced they were defecting from the Big 12 to the SEC, a move that shook the conference and college football at a seismic level, which left WVU out there on its own, hoping to find an offer from another Power 5 conference.
But the Big Ten, the SEC and the ACC turned away, a sign that all the old perceptions of WVU were still intact despite the hiring of Neal Brown, millions spent on facility upgrades, taking on scheduling at the highest level.
If the table wasn’t set for something special against Oklahoma again, then when would it be.
This was a money game against the only Big 12 team WVU had never defeated as a conference member.
The nation expected no upset but West Virginians across the nation felt this could be the time, this should be the time.
Then they kicked off.
WVU was ready. This wasn’t the kind of offense that would win over a nation that seems to thrive on that, but WVU came out on a hostile field and physically took it to the Sooners, socking them in the mouth with a 9-minute, 17-play drive that ended with a touchdown and a new respect from the Oklahoma team.
As they hammered away back and forth with yards being given up grudgingly by both sides, it was becoming more and more obvious that WVU belonged with the nation’s No. 3 team.
This was hard-nosed football that had Oklahoma’s fickle fans chanting to replace Spencer Rattler, a Heisman Trophy candidate with is back up, Caleb Williams.
Still, 30 minutes remained for WVU to make its point and this was going to be 30 minutes of hell for champions seldom fall easily.
So that is how it set up for the stretch run, a proud champion against a WVU team looking for a way to step up into the elite of college football by finally beating Oklahoma for the first time since joining the Big 12.
WVU did its thing ... but it came undone under the pressure in the final minutes as Zach Frazier had miscommunications with his two signal callers as WVU was moving toward what could have been a game-winning field goal, costing 26 yards and essentially the game.
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