'Flat-Out Nightmare' For No. 2 W. Virginia

West Virginia kicker Pat McAfee, right, reacts after missing his second field of the first half during the No. 2 Mountaineers' 13-9 loss to rival Pittsburgh on Saturday night. The setback will keep West Virginia from playing for a national title.
West Virginia kicker Pat McAfee, right, reacts after missing his second field of the first half during the No. 2 Mountaineers' 13-9 loss to rival Pittsburgh on Saturday night. The setback will keep West Virginia from playing for a national title. (Kevin C. Cox - Getty)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

MORGANTOWN, W.Va., Dec. 1 -- More than 60,000 delirious West Virginia fans entered Milan Puskar Stadium for what they hoped would be a Saturday evening coronation. What they witnessed instead was a performance that only made sense this season, when the only guarantee is the inexplicable.

To reach the national championship game, all second-ranked West Virginia had to do was defeat a Pittsburgh team that had won four games all season. But in losing to the Panthers, 13-9, the Mountaineers played their worst offensive game in years at the most inopportune time and dramatically altered a national championship picture that had already changed several times in recent weeks.

"The whole thing was a nightmare," West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez said. "A nightmare. A flat-out nightmare. I didn't sleep well all week and probably won't for the next couple."

West Virginia's stunning loss means that Ohio State, which has not played since Nov. 17, will play in the national title game for the second consecutive season. Top-ranked Missouri's 38-17 loss to Oklahoma means that a two-loss team likely will play the Buckeyes in the Jan. 7 national title game in New Orleans.

Six teams are in contention for the second slot, including five two-loss teams -- Oklahoma, Southern California, Virginia Tech, Louisiana State and Georgia -- and once-beaten Kansas. Jerry Palm, an independent BCS analyst, said late Saturday night that he is 70 percent confident LSU will earn the berth.

"Trying to read the minds of voters is always difficult," Palm said in a telephone interview. "Oklahoma might be better in the polls. Virginia Tech might be better in the computers. LSU has the best combination of the two."

Only one-third of the formula for the BCS ratings accounts for the average of six computer rankings. That means the voters in the Harris Interactive poll and the coaches' poll will play the largest role in determining who is ranked second in the final BCS ratings, which will be unveiled Sunday night.

The teams ranked fourth and fifth in last week's BCS ratings were Georgia and Kansas, two schools that failed to play in their respective conference championship game. After that was a twice-beaten Virginia Tech team that lost at LSU, 48-7, on Sept. 8. LSU, however, lost last week at home to an unranked Arkansas team.

Ohio State rose to fifth in the BCS ratings after beating Michigan in its season finale on Nov. 17, but seven other top 10 teams have lost since then while the Buckeyes have watched. The only ones that have not are Virginia Tech and Georgia.

"At this point, I'm about to crawl under my desk in the fetal position," Palm said about trying to figure out how voters will interpret the conclusion to one of the wildest and unpredictable regular seasons in college football history.

Four top-ranked teams have now lost this season. Saturday marked the third time in two months that the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 teams both lost on the same weekend. West Virginia (10-2) became the 13th top-five team to lose to an unranked opponent this season. The Mountaineers were also the seventh team ranked No. 2 to lose.

"We picked a bad time to play our worst game offensively in years," Rodriguez said. "Life throws you a little adversity and you have to respond to it."

Entering the season's final weekend, no team appeared better positioned to earn a berth in the title game. But the Mountaineers uncharacteristically committed turnovers, missed two field goal attempts in the first half and played without quarterback Pat White for most of the second half.

White was knocked out of the game with a dislocated right thumb with about five minutes remaining in the second quarter. After some of the crowd began chanting for White's return in the fourth quarter, the Heisman Trophy hopeful returned to try to lead his team back from a 13-7 deficit with six minutes to play.

On White's first drive, West Virginia was stopped on downs at the Pittsburgh 26. On the Mountaineers' final drive, White heaved a desperation pass toward the end zone that fell incomplete on a fourth-and-17 play from the Pittsburgh 28.

When the game ended, Pittsburgh players danced on the field amid the deafening silence of Mountaineer fans.

As Big East champion, West Virginia will still play in a BCS game, but it won't be the national championship game.

"It's going to be a long month," Rodriguez said.

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