Entering his fifth season at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez had compiled a 28-21 record since taking over for the legendary Don Nehlen. The Mountaineers had shown signs of progress under Rodriguez, advancing to three consecutive bowl games, but they lost each of those matchups by double digits.
West Virginia was supposed to have a breakout year in 2004, but that never happened. The Mountaineers entered the 2005 season with a sense of uncertainty.
Excluding fans, everyone quoted in the piece is identified by their position at the time of the game.
Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia coach: “We had a lot of question marks at the skill positions – quarterbacks, running backs and other spots on defense. We weren’t sure about some of the guys. But I knew the attitude of the team was great. They were a bunch of hard-working guys and were very, very competitive. I thought we had a chance to be sneaky good, but I didn’t know how good.”
Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Natives, if memory serves, were a little bit restless with Rodriguez. He had his players. He had his spread offense in place. He was one of the inventors, the mad scientist that got it all started. That was going to be a key season for Rodriguez.”
Tony Caridi, Mountaineer Sports Network play-by-play announcer: “At that point, Rich had…I don’t want to say matured as a coach, but I think people saw that there was a rhyme and reason to what he was trying to accomplish. The team he inherited in 2001, it went 3-8. It didn’t have the personnel needed to run his offense. He inherited a drop-back quarterback and he wanted to run the ball. I think people saw there was progress being made and there was excitement.”
Brandon Myles, West Virginia wide receiver: “The expectations were .500, but we knew we could do a lot more.”
Pat McAfee, West Virginia kicker: “Whenever you come in, you’re the same age group and you’re all kind of growing up together. The camaraderie and how tight everyone is is a huge thing. We had a very, very, very tight team. I still talk to Pat and Steve to this day. We were all good friends and we all wanted to win for each other.”
Finder: “The Rodriguez Era was fully unveiled. People were waiting to see how it would turn out.”
For five consecutive seasons, Miami and Virginia Tech represented the Big East in the Bowl Championship Series. But in 2004, the teams bolted for the ACC, the start of what has been a constant cycle of conference realignment. The departure of the Hurricanes and the Hokies left the Big East vulnerable and weak, exemplified by its champion, an 8-4 Pitt team, losing by 28 to Utah in the Fiesta Bowl at the start of 2005.
The Big East added a handful of Conference USA schools to round out its roster in 2005, and Louisville might have been the best of the bunch. A basketball-centric school for much of its history, the Cardinals were tabbed as preseason favorites in the Big East behind quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush. Even with a surprising early loss to South Florida, the 4-1 Cardinals arrived in Morgantown to play 5-1 West Virginia. To the winner would come not only a victory, but an inside path to a conference title and a BCS bowl berth.
Ryan Dorchester, West Virginia student equipment manager: “It was definitely the game at the beginning of the year that you saw as being one that was going to probably end up deciding the champion. Obviously, Pitt was always circled, as well, but Louisville had a lot of preseason hype. They had Brian Brohm, Michael Bush, [defensive lineman Amobi] Okoye, [defensive lineman Elvis] Dumervil. They had some guys who were going to probably be high draft picks. We knew that was probably going to be a tough one.”
Jay Henry, West Virginia linebacker: “I remembered preparing for Brian Brohm and Michael Bush. Those guys were legit. Brohm was one of the best quarterbacks in the country and Bush was just a man-child.”
Louisville RB Michael Bush ran for four touchdowns in the game. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
Tony Gibson, West Virginia defensive backs coach: “I was worrying. They were really good and had players everywhere. [Wide receiver] Harry Douglas was on that team, too. They had big wideouts. They obviously had running backs. And their quarterback was as good as anybody in the country at that time. [Louisville coach Bobby] Petrino, he was a guy who faked a punt early in that game. He was a gambler. They were wide open, throwing it everywhere. It was hard to prepare for them and hard to stop them.”
Tim Lindsey, West Virginia tight end/long snapper: “Going into that, we felt like they were kind of the team in the Big East that stood out. We circled that one from the beginning.”
William Gay, Louisville cornerback: “We were a good team coming from Conference USA to the Big East. We wanted to make noise. We weren’t afraid of anyone.”
Brian Brohm, Louisville quarterback: “Coming into the league, we knew they were a team that was going to be good and a team we were going to have to beat to become the Big East champs. It was definitely a game we were looking forward to.”
Eric Wood, Louisville center: “We knew that would be a big game and a tough road test for us. We had played in some hostile environments, but probably nothing to that extent.”
The Mountaineers had a lot of departures after the 2004 season, but none was bigger than Rasheed Marshall, the dual-threat quarterback who was named the Big East’s offensive player of the year. There was no obvious successor to replace his 1,886 passing yards and 861 rushing yards.
The competition came down to sophomore Adam Bednarik and redshirt freshman Pat White. While there wasn’t a decisive winner – the two split time in the season’s first six games – Bednarik had taken 22 more snaps heading into the Louisville game and in a 27-14 victory against Rutgers the previous week, he accounted for 10 of the team’s 11 pass attempts and seven of its nine quarterback running plays.
Dorchester: “It was my opinion going into that Louisville game that Adam probably gave us our best chance to win.”
“Watch Pat White. He’s the one. He’s the diamond in the rough.”
Calvin Magee, West Virginia offensive coordinator: “Adam was a guy that had been there and had done a good job for us practicing. He was the older guy who understood the offense a little better.”
Caridi: “Coaches play the player they feel most comfortable with, who they feel will value the ball and won’t hurt them. I think maybe at that point, they didn’t have that total confidence yet in Pat to be that guy.”
Finder: “Bednarik had a great record in high school and was kind of the golden boy recruit.”
Pat White, West Virginia quarterback: “I felt like I could do a better job of manning the quarterback position than the guy who was there at the time.”
Finder: “I think it was Rasheed [Marshall] in the spring who had told me ‘Watch Pat White. He’s the one. He’s the diamond in the rough.’”
Though Bednarik was getting more time under center, White remained a tantalizing prospect for coaches and teammates alike. He was an incredible athlete -- a fourth-round MLB draft pick out of high school -- but he did not fit neatly into one position. If he did, it certainly wasn’t at quarterback.
A number of SEC schools recruited the Daphne, Ala., native as a wide receiver or defensive back, but it was Rodriguez who took a chance on him as a passer.
Rodriguez: “We recruited him and thought this guy was special. You could see it, from the way people talked about him to the way he interacted with his teammates and everybody at his school. You knew he had some special qualities.”
White: “I wanted to get in there and prove my worth. At that time, not many schools believed in my intuition and that I could be a quarterback. There were some schools that teetered with offering me a scholarship at quarterback and there were schools other than West Virginia who did offer me a scholarship. But in most of those cases, there was always a talk of ‘athlete’ or ‘receiver’ or ‘cornerback.’ West Virginia was all about quarterback for me.”
Caridi: “I’d be absolutely lying if I ever said I thought he’d become as good as he was. One thing I remember is a friend of mine at that time was working on the video staff shooting practices. He’s been around a long time. He came back one day and he said ‘I’m telling you something. That Pat White kid, he’s got something special about him. He’s got Major Harris-like qualities.’ We had a big laugh because to compare anyone to Major, to bring that up, it’s almost blasphemy. The accomplishments that Major had, he was kind of the standard-bearer to excellence. But he told me that. He said ‘I’m telling you what, they can’t touch him in practice.’”
Magee: “Pat had the smoothness and calmness to calm everybody down. What he was especially good at was getting others around him to feel like they were always in it. He would take the blame for a lot. He would throw a ball and he would say ‘I need to throw that better’ or something like that. He never pointed fingers. He was just the ultimate leader.”
Myles: “He was always preparing in his mind for being the starter and he was ready to step in. Whenever he had his chance, he was going to take advantage.”
Heading into the Louisville game, it appeared Bednarik had solidified his spot as the starter. In a victory against Rutgers one week prior, White barely saw the field, finishing with one pass and two rushing attempts. It was only six games into his first collegiate season, but he was nearing a breaking point.
White: “Honestly, at that point, I was almost ready to give up and give in. I had spoken to my father after the Rutgers game and we talked about how frustrated I was with the amount of snaps I was getting. The week before we had played Virginia Tech and we almost came back and beat them, but we lost on a few mishaps that cost us. He pretty much told me to go out every day that week, the Louisville week, and give everything I had for every play I was in during practice. If at the end of the week I felt the same, he would at that time bring me my baseball glove and I was going to head for professional baseball. I’m thankful I was able to reach out to somebody I loved and trusted and got that advice. Because had I not had anybody to speak with, I would have been very frustrated that week and when my opportunity arose in the Louisville game, I wouldn’t have been ready.”
“Honestly, at that point, I was almost ready to give up and give in.” - Pat White
Just as White was getting lost in the shuffle, freshman Steve Slaton was starting to emerge as a go-to option in a crowded backfield. Once overlooked, Slaton rushed for 90 yards in the fifth game of the season, a loss to Virginia Tech, and followed that up the next week with 139 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers. But nobody was certain whether Slaton’s production was a sign of future success or an aberration.
As a freshman in 2005, Steve Slaton rushed for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
Finder: “They had Jason Colson as the starter and Jason Gwaltney was a freshman and he was looking good. And remember, [Gwaltney] was like the No. 1-rated running back in the country. He came from Long Island to Morgantown. I’m sorry, if you’ve been to both, they don’t look the same. He was quite a catch for them. They had another guy, Pernell Williams, and he was listed as the third team. Every time you would talk about the three backs, Rodriguez would say, ‘And don’t forget Steve Slaton.’ It’s funny, I can still hear him saying that. He was the fourth-team running back. He was a throw-in recruit.”
McAfee: “Summer workouts are when a team really comes together because they are literally the most miserable things in the world. You’re in 100-degree heat, we had Mike Barwis, who was the best strength coach in the country at the time. He was working us into the ground, running us forever, making guys puke. At that point, you kind of watched how guys like Pat White and Steve Slaton performed. We had a team full of athletes, of guys who ran sprints faster than everyone else and were superstars. Everyone knew that once Pat White got his chance on the field, he was going to be special. Everyone knew that Maryland messed up by pulling a scholarship offer from Steve Slaton. It was one of those things where when you watch a guy work out, you know what type of player he’s going to be. When the season got going and Pat got his chance and Steve got his chance, they did nothing but make magic happen.”
By the time the game arrived, and for much of the opening 45 minutes against Louisville, there was little magic to be had for West Virginia. The Cardinals’ high-powered offense and pressuring defense arrived in town as advertised, helping it jump out to a 17-0 lead by halftime. By the start of the fourth quarter, they were up, 24-7.
Mike Cassity, Louisville defensive coordinator: “We had things under control. It was a very good West Virginia football team – we knew that – and we felt like we were grasping the game and playing as we should.”
Eric Wicks, West Virginia safety: “We couldn’t figure it out. As a unit, we thought the reason why was just playing and having guys that believed. While we were playing during that game, we didn’t feel like we were doing everything we could to make sure we made plays.”
Caridi: “Very early in the game, Petrino faked a punt in his own end of the field. It was kind of like ‘Guess what? We’re here to play.’ They just absolutely hit West Virginia quick and hard. The air had been taken out of the entire stadium and the team. It took them a long time to respond.”
Bruce Tall, West Virginia safeties coach: “I remember leaving the press box at halftime and being told some choice words by the fans as I was leaving to go to the locker room.”
Ernie Bonitatibus, West Virginia season ticket holder for 25 years: “It seemed like the game was lost.”
Dan Nehlen, West Virginia equipment manager: “I’ve been around here long enough that for some reason whenever I see scores like that with that amount of time left, it just doesn’t seem like we ever can make a charge and make a comeback and win a game like that.”
Rodriguez: “We needed something positive to happen because we were playing so poorly.”
Magee: “I don’t remember a time when we were in the game and we thought it was over. We kept saying ‘We’ve got time. We’ve got time.’”
McAfee: “With how powerful our offense was and how explosive we were, I don’t think we ever felt like we were out of anything. That’s a mindset you have when you’re a competitor and when you have faith in your teammates.”
Cassity: “Bednarik had been doing a really good job. We spent most of our practice time working on West Virginia’s offense, not necessarily one quarterback or another, because at the time, they were running pretty much the same offense. The mistake we made was knocking Bednarik out in the fourth quarter.”
Louisville linebacker Brandon Johnson takes down WVU QB Adam Bednarik early in the fourth quarter. Bednarik's foot injury paved the way for Pat White to take the reins. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
With 11:42 remaining in the game, Bednarik dropped back for a pass on first down. Almost immediately, he was grabbed, spun around and wrestled down by blitzing Louisville linebacker Brandon Johnson at the West Virginia 34 for a 10-yard loss. Though Bednarik got up from the tackle, he went back to the ground before returning to the huddle, unable to stand through the pain in his right foot. He was helped off by the team’s training staff and was replaced by White.
Up to that point, Bednarik had not played particularly well, completing just 8 of 16 passes for 60 yards. But a team that was already down 17 was now down its primary quarterback.
“I was like ‘We don’t have a prayer here.’”
Nehlen: “Once that happened, you were pretty much deflated. You didn’t think you had much hope, that was for sure.”
Harry Grandon, West Virginia season ticket holder since 1998: “I was like ‘We don’t have a prayer here.’”
Wicks: “At the beginning, guys were disappointed because we knew Adam was a good quarterback and we knew he could make a lot of plays for us. We knew about the young guy – we knew about Pat White – but we didn’t know what he could do in a game. Everybody was a little…I wouldn’t say scared, but I would say antsy, to see what happened.”
White: “I thought ‘What more could I hurt? Just go out there and play ball.’”
Cassity: “When we knocked Bednarik out, here comes Pat White. I did that one other time in my career. That was on a Thursday night ESPN game. I was at Georgia Tech and we were playing No. 1 in the nation Florida State. In the fourth quarter, we knocked out the starting quarterback and we were up. Lo and behold, they put in this guy by the name of Charlie Ward. They never left the shotgun after that and won the national championship. I was thinking déjà vu, I’ve done this before.”
Finder: “I remember Rich said that everybody just kind of threw everything on the ground and said ‘This is it. Let’s see what we can do.’ They let the engine roar.”
White: “As long as there is time on the clock, anything is possible, right?”
Pat White entered in the fourth -- and things began to change. Though he completed only five passes, he ran for 69 yards on 11 carries. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
The game changed drastically. Behind its new quarterback, West Virginia’s offense started to come to life. On his first drive, White guided the Mountaineers to the Louisville 28 and, when faced with a 4th and 10, he scrambled for 17 yards. Slaton eventually got a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 24-14. Barely four minutes later, West Virginia was within a touchdown with 4:35 remaining.
Rodriguez: “I can remember looking up after the game and it was a full moon. Something strange was going to happen that night.”
Myles: “I think they were on their heels a bit. They prepared for a different quarterback. When Bednarik got hurt, they knew nothing about Pat.”
Brohm: “Pat White, he played a little bit, but I don’t think he was someone we prepared for exclusively. We knew he might get a few series here or there, but he brought a whole different dynamic to the offense, with him and Steve Slaton being very explosive in the read option game. It gave our defense some trouble. They got the ball rolling and the crowd got into the game.”
White: “Although Adam Bednarik could use his feet to make plays, he was similar to Brian Brohm. Louisville was accustomed to defending Brian Brohm in practice and I’m sure did most of their game-planning for a guy who would get out of the pocket, but would spend a lot of time in the pocket. Me coming in as a change up and it being late in the game and them being worn down and me being a fresh source of energy to the offense, it kind of stunned them. It stunned them so much that they couldn’t recover.”
Caridi: “It was more of a rising tidal wave than it was an explosion. These little pieces continued to happen. You would watch a play, you would look at the scoreboard, look at the time and you kept doing the math in your head. You’re saying ‘If they do this and if this happens, then this would happen.’ This was one of those games where all those “this’ and thats” actually came true. Before you knew it, you had a game.”
Finder: “Half the crowd was gone. They had all walked out at halftime and stayed out, pretty much. Most of them were out in the parking lot, still tailgating and probably commiserating at that point. As the stadium erupted and maybe a few of them still had it on the radio, they knew it was getting closer and excitement was building. I can still picture the streams of people coming back into the gates in the fourth quarter. That was one of the most amazing things.”
Grandon: “I remember distinctly running back into the stadium as fast as we could to watch the end of the game. It went from being as low as you could possibly go – wondering what in the world is going on and where we’re going – to just an absolute state of euphoria. It was one of the craziest evenings I’ve ever spent at Mountaineer Field.”
White: “My level of confidence started to build gradually throughout that season and in practice that week leading up to that game. I had a mindset I was going to show them what they would be missing. They don’t think I’m good enough to be a starter, so let me show them that I am.”
Magee: “We kept calling the same stuff. We’d get first downs and then we moved and moved and moved. The mindset wasn’t to do anything special. It was to keep calling what we believed in. Thank god Pat executed.”
Gay: “We tried everything. We called everything in the book. With the option, it just comes down to rules. That’s exactly what happened. We weren’t sound within the defense. The next week, we were working on option the entire practice and we didn’t even play an option team that following week.”
Cassity: “Maybe there was a time or two we should have max blitzed him. I’m not sure.”
Henry: “I wish I could say ‘Hey, I knew Pat and Steve were going to be awesome’ based on practice – and they were obviously unbelievable athletes who were hard to get your hands on in practice – but seeing them game time, it was a whole other level. It was surprising. It was surprising to most folks on the team and it was surprising to most of the coaches, just how well those guys performed in pressure situations. It was another world.”
After his team pulled within 10 points with eight minutes remaining, Rodriguez decided to gamble with an onside kick. The Mountaineers lined up for a normal kickoff, but McAfee chipped the ball in the air. Teammate Thandi Smith recovered near midfield.
Originally, a flag was thrown against the Mountaineers, but it was later picked up. Three days after the game, the Big East ruled the officials should have called the penalty because Louisville’s Jimmy Riley was hit before he could field the ball on a kick that had yet to hit the ground. The drive ultimately ended with a field goal with 4:35 remaining.
In trying to accomplish a comeback that would require some degree of luck, West Virginia had caught a major break.
McAfee: “Walking out on the field, none of us really thought we had a chance of recovering it.”
Rodriguez: “We knew they were so good offensively that they were going to be hard to stop. We tried to steal a possession. Even when you’re playing well, you don’t know for sure if you can really stop them and keep them from scoring or taking a lot of time off the clock. What we needed was possessions. Anyway you could steal a possession, we tried to do it.”
McAfee: “That onside kick was 100 percent luck. I remember the next day, there was a big uproar about how it was an illegal onside kick because we hit the guy before he had a chance to catch it. But we really hadn’t completed an onside kick a single time in practice. I think I kicked it out of bounds every single time.”
Brohm: “It’s unfortunate because they actually got the call right originally. … That changed the course of the season. If we would have won that game, we would have won the league and been in a BCS bowl game. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Dorchester: “When we got the onside kick right after that touchdown, you noticed that there was more chatter, it was louder and there was maybe a little bit more yelling going on. It definitely changed at that moment.”
Rodriguez: “That’s when the crowd got really into it.”
McAfee: “Because it was a play I was directly a part of -- that I knew shouldn’t have worked, but it did – whenever things start rolling like that, that’s when you know things are going to go well. At that point was when I thought we were going to win the game.”
A 1-yard touchdown plunge from Slaton capped off a 40-yard drive that tied the score with exactly one minute remaining and sent the game into overtime. The teams combined to score 28 points through the first two overtimes, with none of the four drives lasting longer than three plays.
Finder: “It became a video game.”
Dorchester: “When it got into those overtimes, you got the feeling this game could theoretically go on forever because, at that point, I didn’t think either defense was going to stop either offense. Brohm was really good, just in how he kind of composed himself on the sideline. He was one guy I really noticed on their team. He was very calm, very collected.”
Brohm: “Offensively, there was more a feeling that we needed to score every time we got the ball.”
Cassity: “We knew Pat White was an athletic young man, but until you actually face somebody under the live bullets and rushing and how he avoided the rush…as a matter of fact, we ran a blitz and he stepped right around one of the best players in Big East history, Elvis Dumervil, and there was just one play here and one play there. He was athletic enough to make us miss. Once they got it into overtime, we couldn’t stop them, they couldn’t stop us and one play decided the game.”
White: “If I wouldn’t have prepared the way I did throughout the week for that game, I wouldn’t have been ready for that moment. We probably wouldn’t have come back and I probably wouldn’t have had the starting job the following week. But because I was confident enough to reach out for that advice, it benefitted me in the long run.”
Cassity: “Once we got into overtime, that’s where he really shined.”
West Virginia got the ball first in the third overtime and got a 1-yard touchdown run from Slaton, his fifth of the game, before successfully executing the mandatory two-point conversion attempt. Louisville responded promptly with a four-play drive capped off by Bush’s fourth rushing touchdown of the day to make it 46-44. All that separated the game from yet another overtime was a two-point try.
Gibson: “I can remember the coverage was blue coverage. We were dropping eight into coverage. We knew they were going to throw it.”
Wicks: “When we were in the red zone, we always played one defense. Our coaches would tell us, ‘It’s not about what they know that you’re in; it’s about if you know how to cover them.’ We would play this defense we would play almost every time they got tight in the red zone. We knew the play they were going to run. They loved this play and it worked most of the time. They were really good at it.”
Henry: “I blitzed and he felt pressure from not just me, but the D line.”
Wicks: “Once we saw Brohm scramble and the play broke down and Brohm had to try to make a run for it, in my eyes, I felt like we had them.”
Louisville QB Brian Brohm fails on the two-point conversion chance on the last play of the game. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
Brohm: “It was our two-point play we liked to run. It was an empty backfield. We had three guys go down and turn around right over the goal line and we had two digs in the back of the end zone. I was looking to go to [wide receiver] Montrell Jones in the back left side of the end zone. He wasn’t very open and unfortunately, [6-foot-6 wide receiver] Mario Urrutia, I think, got hurt the play before. He would have been my receiver on the right, a tall target in the back of the end zone. If he’s in there, maybe I look that way, but he wasn’t. When you watch the film, the guy in the dig on the right was open, but I was looking left. Nothing was open, so I decided to take off and run. They came up, tackled me and made a good play. It’s one of those plays where if I run and get it in, it was a great decision, but if not, you kind of hope you give somebody a chance and throw them a ball in the end zone. It was unfortunate we lost that game. It was one we felt like slip away.”
Finder: “If he throws, and you figure he’s going to make it, we might still be playing that damn game.”
Right after Brohm had been brought to the turf and the final whistle blew, Wicks bounced up, stood over his opponent and raised both fists skyward. Players and coaches rushed the field as a delirious crowd screamed from the stadium’s metal bleachers. In front of a pack of photographers, Rodriguez looked around the field and out into the stands with both hands on his head and his mouth agape. His expression said it all – ‘What in the hell just happened here?’
Henry: “It was chaos. I remember being at the bottom of a pile and panicking for one split second that I wasn’t going to be able to get out of it. My girlfriend at the time – my wife now – was in the stands. Her memory of that game was that most of the student section had left and were trying to get back into the game and couldn’t, so a big portion of the student section didn’t even get to see the comeback. That just shows how far down we were.”
Lindsey: “After the game, you think back and you’re like ‘Do you realize what just went on?’ Even right now talking about it, it still feels that way.”
Tall: “We were so juiced. I don’t know who went to bed last night.”
Cassity: “It was a heartbreaking loss.”
Rodriguez: “I went home with the family thinking ‘This is a game we’re probably going to remember a long time.’”
Nehlen: “There have been a lot of great ones at Mountaineer Field and that ranks right up there as one of the best ones. That’s for sure.”
Brohm: “It stuck with me for a while. It was one we felt like we let get away.”
Magee: “Nobody could predict that’s the way he would have performed in his first shining moment. But it was something we thought would happen because we saw how he did it in scrimmages as a true freshman. To see the whole group was the best part. To see Steve Slaton, who was a true freshman, to see [fullback] Owen Schmitt, who hadn’t played until that year, to see all those guys rally and the way Pat led them, it was surreal.”
From the moment White entered the game, he accounted for 99 total yards while Slaton rushed for 101 yards in the final 12 minutes of the fourth quarter and the three overtimes.
The game itself was thrilling, but 10 years later, it is much more meaningful. On the heels of his star-making performance, White was named the team’s starter the next week and from there, neither he nor West Virginia would look back. The Mountaineers did not lose again that season, winning a Big East championship and upsetting Georgia, 38-35, in the Sugar Bowl. White and Slaton emerged as a dream combination for Rodriguez’s offense. Including the victory against Louisville, the Mountaineers went 28-4 in their next 32 games, a stretch that included two BCS bowl victories.
But the night also leaves many questions about what might have been. If Bednarik doesn’t get hurt, does White ever get the starting job? Does he even bother to stick around to see it through or does he become a pro baseball player? Would the Mountaineers have come close to approaching the heights they reached without him? And what becomes of Rodriguez and his career? History sometimes pivots around the most seemingly insignificant moments, when few expect anything of meaning to come from it. For West Virginia, a foot injury in the fourth quarter of a 17-point game was just that.
Dorchester: “The whole mindset of that team really just changed from ‘We think we’re good’ to ‘We know we’re good.’ When you go down and come back like that, it gives you that sense you’re never really out of a game.”
Tall: “The one thing we had were very confident young men on our team. It built off of that. A signature win like that, it helped define their confidence. Our guys believed and that’s why we had success here. Our guys truly believed, probably sometimes too much.”
Wicks: “Coach Rod and [defensive coordinator] coach [Jeff] Castille and the coaches did a great job making sure we knew we were a good team and could beat anybody. Once we believed it and everybody bought in, our mentality changed around the university, as well. We all worked hard and we all looked at it like we need to be leaders and hold the ropes for the rest of our guys. That was our motto – hold the rope for the man behind you or the man beside you. At that point, we all bought in. We would hold that rope until our knuckles were bleeding.”
Lindsey: “Those guys themselves lit the fire collectively, with these two younger guys with so much talent. With Steve, you kind of knew it was just a matter of time before something popped off and he took off running. It was almost like we expected it. It was fun to watch. Sometimes, you kind of just stood there and forgot it was second or third down because you were waiting for Pat and Steve to do something crazy. That game kind of brought those two up and shaped them with experience that you only get after playing a couple of years. They got a lot of it from just that game.”
The whole mindset of that team really just changed from “We think we’re good” to “We know we’re good.”
White: “There was not much going on before that point. Obviously we were teammates, so we knew of each other. We were in the backfield, so we spent a lot of time with each other learning about each other. But the friendship, I don’t think, really came to fruition until we both felt that energy that night.”
Rodriguez: “He looked like a veteran. He was a redshirt freshman playing his first year of college football, but he came in there with so much poise. That’s what Pat White is and was. The bigger the stage and the more at stake, the better he was. That’s why he won the Sugar Bowl and why he was so good in so many big games. He elevated his game. That was really the first opportunity he got to show that. After he did that, you were like ‘Wow.’ This guy, we knew he was special, but he’s more than that.”
White: “As Steve and I became friends, we talked about it a lot. Around the locker room, it started to grow. There was a sense that we could compete with anybody. Louisville was an up-and-coming team at that point that had been playing very well. To have that comeback victory, that was definitely a confidence booster not just for me and Steve, but for everybody on that team.”
Rodriguez: “It was one of those magical nights where everything lined up for us. I think that’s the game that propelled us forward. We kind of grew up in that game, but we also came together with a kind of resolve that carried us through the rest of the season.”
McAfee: “It was one of those moments where we looked around. We knew we were a good team and we knew we had the possibility of being good. But there are so many good college football teams. After that game, we all celebrated really hard. We were in college. We had a great time. But once we got back to work that next week, we all realized – and Rich Rodriguez made us realize – that our ceiling was really, really, really high. We had a chance to be a great football team and a very successful team if we wanted to be. We just had to work for it. That’s what that game did for us. It propelled us into another stratosphere.”
Caridi: “Not to glorify the thing too much because, at the end of the day, it was just a football game, but in the world of what it was, you can look back on it now and say ‘That’s why people really took a love to that game.’ It’s because it was more than just a game. It kind of defined what Rich was trying to accomplish and what the state as a whole strives to be.”
Rodriguez: “I would like to think we were on that path anyway because those guys were all young guys and they were going to keep getting better and were going to be good the next several years. That probably accelerated that a little bit. There are always moments when you build a program that help you take that next step. I think that game was one of those moments.”