West Virginia 31, North Carolina 30: Pat White Passes Final College Exam

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IDecember 29, 2008

I won’t blame ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt for analyzing Saturday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl incorrectly—everyone did, including me.

You’ll recall that I ran into SVP in Washington last week and his take on the game was: “[WVU] should be okay. Just don’t throw the ball, because they’ll pick it off and run it back.”

Well, UNC did pick off one Pat White pass, but it didn’t matter. WVU picked off a UNC pass, and it mattered more than almost any play during the excitingly terrifying game.

And WVU did throw it—White threw for a career-high 332 yards on an amazing 26-of-32 performance and three touchdowns.

What better conclusion to a great WVU career for White, who spent his college career proving doubters wrong. Only WVU thought he could play quarterback—LSU and every other school that recruited White wanted him to be a d-back or receiver. At WVU, he was asked to play quarterback, but a run-first, throw-last quarterback.

It was only in his last season, in a lurching 9-4 effort under the coaching of Bill Stewart and first-time offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, that White became a more complete passer. On Saturday, he looked every bit the NFL quarterback.

His first touchdown pass was a 50-yard rope to Alric Arnett. His second, to Bradley Starks, was a little wobbly, but right on target. And this third, again to Arnett, was a laser strike between two converging defenders. It looked like a Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison touchdown.

I went to the game in Charlotte and am pleased to report that it appeared half of the stadium was in powder blue, with the other half in gold, even though the game was only two hours from the UNC campus. I was fortunate enough to sit in a suite with WVU interim president Peter Magrath.

In the second half, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin stopped by the suite. I had seen Manchin on CNBC a couple of weeks ago, so we talked about West Virginia’s economy. (My day job is as a business reporter.) Manchin, a former quarterback at WVU, is an ebullient—and sometimes invasive—WVU fan.

After WVU linebacker Pat Lazear sealed the victory with a fourth-quarter interception, Manchin hugged me, which was an odd feeling. I can report it was the first time I have been hugged by a governor and it’s my bad luck the hug came from Manchin and not Sarah Palin.

The first quarter was breathtaking, as it appeared both defenses had stayed on campus. UNC wideout Hakeem Nicks was uncoverable by anyone on the WVU defense, which was missing starting safety Sidney Glover with an injury and starting cornerback Brandon Hogan with an increasingly mysterious illness.

Let’s take a moment here to report what we know on Hogan: Early in the bowl week, Stewart said Hogan was “ill.” Then, he said Hogan was “dealing with a personal issue.” He didn’t attend any team functions and didn’t dress for the game.

The Mountaineers took the field carrying his jersey, No. 22, several players had No. 22 somewhere on their body or uni and, in the postgame comments, White dedicated the game to Hogan, held up his jersey on TV and said, “You down but you not out.” The team would say no more on Hogan’s whereabouts or condition.

Now, we know the following: Hogan was hospitalized—unclear where—and had restricted visitation. Some players evidently know what is wrong with him but others do not. The same appears true of coaches. No one—repeat, no one—is talking about whatever is wrong with him.

His high school coach (Virginia’s Osbourn, where Hogan helped the school win a state championship in 2006) would say only that Hogan is “doing better but not out of the woods yet.”

We won’t speculate on what is wrong with Hogan but say only our thoughts and prayers are with the young man, who came to WVU as a highly recruited quarterback/athlete, was switched to slot receiver last season, and then switched to cornerback this season, which he gamely and generally successfully manned.

Now, back to the game.

I re-watched the game Sunday night after I returned from Charlotte. Here are a few observations:

-- Generally, it looked like UNC’s linemen were bigger than WVU’s, and it seemed WVU offensive players were not just tackled by UNC defenders, they were often flung to the ground.

-- I think the ref blew the call on the Noel Devine safety. The line judge on the other side was running in to mark the ball just barely out of the end zone, but the other line judge called a safety. The ball and most of his body were clearly out of the end zone; only his feet were still in the end zone. That, of course, doesn't negate the poor play call or the pathetic offensive line "surge."

-- WVU’s kickoff defense coverage finished the season atrociously. Time after time, UNC started at midfield. WVU allowed 28.5 yards per kickoff return during the game. The game’s dismal performance by the kickoff team only underlines the point I made earlier this season: Stewart cannot be an effective head coach and special teams coach. He will most help the Mountaineers in the offseason by either hiring a special teams coach or by assigning the duties to another coach.

-- The key play of the game—Lazear’s interception—never would have mattered had the real key play of the game gone a different way.  Late in the third quarter, with UNC leading 30-24, quarterback T.J. Yates lofted a perfect third-down sideline bomb to receiver Greg Little, who had beaten Keith Tandy—Hogan’s replacement.

The ball hit Little in his hands, and he dropped it. I don’t think Little would have scored, but he would have been at least to the WVU 45. This would have put UNC in business in WVU territory with a chance to make it a two-score game—either by touchdown or field goal—which would have changed the contest dramatically.

In our next entry, we’ll take a look back at this WVU season—which was by turns maddening, frustrating, exhilarating and inspiring—and speculate on what the 2009 edition of the Mountaineers will be like.

The one thing we know: There is no replacement for Pat White. I’ve been watching WVU football since 1981. I’ve seen Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler, Major Harris, Marc Bulger, Avon Cobourne, Darryl Talley, Steve Slaton, and a dozen other great players. I’ve never seen a Mountaineer better than White, and I doubt I ever will. He will be missed.