The fans had left in droves as they often do when the home team is trailing 17-0 at halftime. Late in the third quarter, after 19th-ranked Louisville had answered a West Virginia touchdown with a TD of its own to make the score 24-7, the empty rows of bleachers nearly outnumbered those people still sitting in the seats at Mountaineer Field.
For the 25,000 or so that packed up their things and left, the humiliation of watching Louisville stomp all over the Mountaineers was much more difficult to take then running the risk of missing out on an epic comeback.
And those watching at home on TV put their remotes to good use by flipping back and forth between the Penn State-Michigan and Notre Dame-USC games.
When the sun was still shining, Louisville looked like the Green Bay Packers, running by, through and around West Virginia’s defense. Brian Brohm was well on his way to a 400-yard passing day and Michael Bush was halfway to 200 yards rushing by the time the two teams headed to the locker room for halftime.
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s spread offense was stuck in idle, gaining a paltry 57 yards on the ground. Actually, the passing game was thrown in reverse, the combination of Adam Bednarik and Pat White completing only 3 of 8 passes for minus 1 yards.
An already bleak picture turned worse early in the fourth quarter when Bednarik left the field with a sprained right foot. So with no other choice, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez put his freshman quarterback Pat White back into the game to get a little seasoning before the next game against South Florida, which actually turned out to be Connecticut when Hurricane Wilma blew through Tampa.
“Not only were we down, we were down soundly,” said Rodriguez. “We weren’t even in the ballgame.”
But a funny thing happened – the freshman marched the team right down the field. No one knew at the time they were watching Lou Gehrig taking over for Wally Pipp - right under the lights at Mountaineer Field.
When Bednarik was helped off the field, White came in facing a second and 20 at his own 34. He first ran for six yards and then passed for 16 more to Darius Reynaud to give the Mountaineers a first down at the UofL 44. Then, faced with a fourth and 10 at the Cardinals 28, White took off for 17 yards to move the sticks again. Two plays later, White handed off to freshman running back Steve Slaton for a touchdown.
An onside kick (later deemed an illegal one by the Big East Conference) was recovered by the Mountaineers at the WVU 48. A Slaton 22-yard run gave West Virginia a first down at the Louisville 30. The drive eventually stalled at the Cardinals six and following a delay of game penalty (yes, West Virginia took a delay of game penalty despite being behind by two scores and the clock winding down inside of five minutes) Pat McAfee slipped a field goal through the uprights to make the score 24-17, Louisville.
For the first time in the game, Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino got conservative. WVU safety Eric Wicks made a tremendous play on Michael Bush’s sweep to the right for a loss of one before a blitzing Boo McLee forced Brohm to misfire on a pass out in the flat to Bush.
On third and 11, Brohm couldn’t hook up with Joshua Tinch because a blitzing Mike Lorello was right in his face. Those three plays ate only 54 seconds off the clock and Petrino had no other choice but to punt the ball back to West Virginia with plenty of time remaining.
A short Todd Flannery punt was fielded by Vaughn Rivers at the West Virginia 48 and he returned the ball 12 yards to the Cardinals 40. Slaton ran for 16 to the Louisville 24. Two plays later, on fourth and one at the 15, White ran behind the left side of his line for 12 yards to the Louisville three. Then Slaton’s second crack at crossing the goal line with 1:00 remaining on the clock was successful (Slaton’s first unsuccessful run was important because it didn’t allow Louisville enough time to go down the field to try a game-winning field goal). McAfee’s PAT tied the game at 24.
In the first overtime, it took WVU just two plays to reach pay dirt when Slaton bounced in from the three. Brohm answered with a 10-yard touchdown strike to Mario Urrutia.
Louisville scored quickly on its second overtime possession when Bush got to the outside and rumbled in from the 14. Slaton matched Bush’s score with a 23-yarder to tie the game at 38; Slaton’s sixth touchdown of the game came in the third overtime to give the Mountaineers a 44-38 lead.
With both teams now required to go for the two-point conversion, White connected with Dorrell Jalloh in the back of the end zone to give West Virginia an eight-point lead.
“During the overtime it just seemed like guys were possessed the way they were running around,” said WVU center Dan Mozes.
Louisville scored again when Bush took it in from the three, but the Cardinals’ two-point try was unsuccessful when Brohm tried to do with his feet what he had been doing so successfully with his right arm. Wicks was right there to stop Brohm a yard short of the goal line. West Virginia 46, Louisville 44.
“I knew I had to get there quick,” Wicks said. “He’s a big guy, and I had to bring everything to get him down. I couldn’t believe it. I just went crazy.”
So did the fans.
The ones remaining poured onto the field to celebrate the most unlikely comeback victory in Mountaineer Field history. The retractable uprights were lowered and the celebration eventually moved out to the parking lots. The students that had left poured out into the downtown streets. Those traveling down I-79 in an effort to get a head start on the traffic honked their horns and flashed their lights.
Louisville players and coaches were in a daze.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” said Petrino afterward.
“The best win I’ve had,” added WVU defensive back Jahmile Addae. “It tops Virginia Tech, Pitt, all of those, just because of the hype Louisville had coming into this year.”
Today, when you watch this game on the special DVD the Mountaineer Sports Network produced in an effort to cash in on the big win, it is obvious that if any one of about 10 things doesn't go right for West Virginia in the fourth quarter then Louisville wins, making the comeback even more remarkable.
So remarkable and unforgettable, in fact, that it is one for the ages.
Just Missing The Cut: Connecticut 2009, Cincinnati 2008, Auburn 2008, Syacuse 2000, Boston College 1994, Syracuse 1994, Penn State 1992, Boston College 1992, Penn State 1986, Maryland 1984, Maryland 1982.