Mountaineers, Sooners arrive in Phoenix for Fiesta Bowl
PHOENIX - West Virginia's coach recently resigned and many of its fans stayed home. Still, the Mountaineers insist they're excited about playing in the Fiesta Bowl.
Serenaded by a mariachi band moments after landing in bright sunshine at Sky Harbor International Airport, No. 11 West Virginia arrived in the desert Wednesday to prepare for a Jan. 2 matchup with third-ranked Oklahoma in Glendale.
"It's a game we've been very much looking forward to," said interim coach Bill Stewart, who took over after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan.
On Dec. 1, the Mountaineers were looking forward to a different game -- the Bowl Championship Series title game. But a home loss to underdog Pittsburgh sent the Mountaineers to the Fiesta for the second time in their history. In January 1989, quarterback Major Harris and the Mountaineers lost to Notre Dame, which won the national championship.
The fans' disappointment was evident when West Virginia returned about 7,500 of the 17,000 tickets it had been allotted.
The program received another blow when Rodriguez, an alumnus, bolted for Michigan two weeks after presiding over one of the most crushing defeats in school history.
Stewart said his players had responded well to the setbacks and had good practices on campus.
"Our football team has a game to play," he said. "We're on a mission. What we're doing right now -- that process is over. That door has been closed. Everyone has bonded together throughout the state."
The Mountaineers (10-2) still have plenty to play for. They can become one of three teams to win 11 games in each of the past three seasons, along with LSU and Southern California. A victory would also give the Mountaineers their third straight Top 10 finish.
Like West Virginia, Oklahoma also harbored national title aspirations late in the season. The Sooners (11-2) played superbly in their last game, beating then-No. 1 Missouri 38-17 in the Big 12 title game in San Antonio. But that resounding victory wasn't enough to overcome a late-season loss to Texas Tech, so the Sooners ended up in their fourth Fiesta Bowl -- and second in two years.
A reported attempt by Oklahoma to get out of the Fiesta and play No. 5 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl was spiked by BCS officials.
Oklahoma arrived several hours after the Mountaineers on Wednesday. The Sooners landed in the dark -- which is how Boise State left them in last January's Fiesta, widely considered one of the finest bowl games in college football history.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops dismissed a question about whether there would be any carry-over from the Boise State loss to this year's game against West Virginia.
"It had absolutely no effect on us whatsoever," Stoops said. "Go through our first four games and see how much it affected us. That's one of those things -- different time, different team, different circumstances. I just don't see how it equates."
The Sooners won their first four games this season by an average score of 61-12.