#11 West Virginia 38 (Final: 11-1, #5)
#8 Georgia 35 (Final: 10-3, #10)
This was one hellacious football game, one worthy of notation by itself, an upset of the highest order. But the backdrop of this Sugar Bowl puts it in a separate category.
For the only time in the almost three quarters of a century history of the game, it was played outside of New Orleans. This was the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina, when the streets of New Orleans were submerged for weeks, when thousands of homes were destroyed, when hundreds of lives were lost, when the Superdome was knocked out of commission.
The very fate of the Sugar Bowl hung in the balance.
If the game was cancelled, the Sugar could lose its spot in the BCS rotation and very likely drop to a second-tier postseason game, a shadow of its former self – if that.
With the gracious help of the Atlanta Convention and Tourist Bureau, Executive Director Paul Hoolahan moved his staff to the Peach State, and, with considerable help from 50 members of the committee and the Southeastern Conference, was able to function and ultimately put on the game in the Georgia Dome.
Seventh-ranked SEC champion Georgia (10-2) was set to face 11th-ranked West Virginia, 10-1 champions of the lowly regarded Big East Conference, a league which was already 0-3 in the season’s bowl games. The Mountaineers, coached by former Tulane offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, were ranked behind six teams that lost more games, including Georgia.
It was thought the ‘Dogs going against the Mountaineers would be like men going against boys. And with reason. Eleven redshirt and eight true freshmen, including Steve Slaton, dotted the West Virginia starting units. Slaton came in with 924 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. WVU QB Pat White, a redshirt freshman, entered the game with 708 passing yards and seven touchdowns, and ran for 875 yards and seven more touchdowns, a prime reason why the Mountaineers and their spread offense averaged 262.5 yards rushing, ranking fifth nationally.
“Nobody gives us much respect,” Craig Wilson, a Mountaineer defensive end from New Orleans, said. “Everybody claims the Big East is a weak league, and that makes us a weak team. We know that’s not true, but the only way to prove it is by beating Georgia.”
Disasters seemed to be the order of the day. Just as the Sugar Bowl was determined to put on a good show as a demonstration that it and New Orleans were still standing, the Mountaineers entered the game with extra resolve. Yet another catastrophe occurred that morning in their home state when an explosion in the Sole Sago coal mine in Tallmansville trapped 13 men in a shaft two miles deep in the earth.
At game-time no one knew how many, if any, survived. Eventually one man was rescued.
“It’s only football,” Rich Rodriguez, a native West Virginian, said, “but we wanted to do something to lift our people’s spirits. We always want to play well, but tonight especially.”
West Virginia was a touchdown underdog, but it took the Mountaineers fewer than three minutes to gash the vaunted Bulldog defense. Slaton, the freshman tailback, took a handoff on a draw play and shot through three attempted tackles for a 52-yard touchdown at 12:12 of the opening quarter.
On its second possession, West Virginia scored again, this time on a 3-yard reception by Darius Reynaud, another Louisianan, from Pat White. The touchdown followed a 30-yard catch by Brandon Myles and a 17-yarder by Reynaud.
In quick order, Slaton scored again on an 18-yard burst, and Reynaud ran in from 18-yards out on an end-around.
In four possessions, West Virginia had Georgia – and the college football world – stupefied with a 28-0 lead by the opening minute of the second quarter, running only 21 plays and having to convert just three first downs.
Of course, as all sports fans knew, the Bulldogs would come charging back, and they did, dominating the second, third and most of the fourth quarters. But never able to catch up with the Mountaineers. With 3:12 to play, Bulldogs quarterback D.J. Shockley connected on a 43-yard pass to Bryan McClendon that brought the score to its final figures.
But the drama wasn’t over. With less than two minutes to go, WVU found itself at its 45 with a fourth-and-six. Phil Brady faked a punt and ran for 10 yards, sealing the victory.
It was a Sugar Bowl to remember for a variety of reasons. Slaton finished with 204 yards rushing to break the 30-year old Sugar Bowl record of 202 set by Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett; West Virginia racked up 502 yards and five touchdowns against the nation’s fourth-ranked defense. That was one more yard than Georgia had in a game that saw the Sugar Bowl record for total yardage eclipsed.
West Virginia proved it belonged among the big boys of college football. It also gave a lift to dispirited folks at home.
“That was weighing on my heart,” Rodriguez, a native of Grant Town, said of the efforts at the coal mine. “It was a tough day for the state and hopefully the victory, because we have so much pride, will help people feel good about themselves.”
It was the same for the Sugar Bowl, still functioning at a high level despite the desperate conditions in New Orleans.
“This game had to come off smoothly for us to continue to show we are one of the premier bowl experiences,” Sugar Bowl President Mark Romig said. “That has been our driving inspiration through all of this. Katrina knocked us down but did not knock us out, and we have done what we had to do to put on this game in its grand tradition.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
ABC Rating: 9.0
WVU: Slaton 52 yd run (McAfee kick), 12:12 (1st)
WVU: Reynaud 3 yd pass from White (McAfee kick), 6:27 (1st)
WVU: Reynaud 13 yd run (McAfee PAT), 4:27 (1st)
WVU: Slaton 18 yd run (McAfee kick), 14:10 (2nd)
UGA: Lumpkin 34 yd run (Coutu kick), 12:58 (2nd)
UGA: Brown 52 yd run (Coutu kick), 8:52 (2nd)
WVU: McAfee 27 yd field goal, 5:37 (2nd)
UGA: Pope 4 yd pass from Shockley (Coutu kick), 0:58 (2nd)
UGA: Bryant 34 yd pass from Shockley (Coutu kick), 1:44 (3rd)
WVU: Slaton 52 yd run (McAfee kick), 8:32 (4th)
UGA: McClendon 43 yd pass from Shockley (Coutu kick), 5:13 (4th)
|West Virginia|| Team Stats
|27|| First Downs
|120|| Passing Yds
|77-502|| Total Offense
|130|| Return Yards
|35:59|| Time of Poss.
WVU: Slaton 26-204 3 TD, Schmitt 9-82, White 24-77, Reynaud 1-13 TD, Brady 1-10. UGA: Brown 9-78 TD, Shockley 8-71, Lumpkin 9-67 TD, Ware 1-6, Southerland 1-2.
WVU: White 11-14-0, 129 yards, 1 TD. UGA: Shockley 20-33-0, 277 yards, 3 TD.
WVU: Reynaud 6-48 TD, Myles 4-64, Slaton 1-8. UGA: Pope 6-50 TD, Massaquoi 4-43, McClendon 3-72 TD, Raley 2-41, Brown 2-22, Lumpkin 2-15, Bryant 1-34 TD.
Miller-Digby Award recipient: Steve Slaton, West Virginia running back