Miami • The Clemson Tigers have waited 30 years to return to South Florida for an Orange Bowl berth.
The West Virginia Mountaineers have waited a lifetime.
The 14th-ranked Atlantic Coast Conference champion Tigers (10-3) and No. 23 Big East champion Mountaineers (9-3) — each defined by electrifying, no-huddle offenses— will meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sun Life Stadium in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Both aim to climax impressive seasons with one more rousing display.
“This is our greatest memory, if you will, as a program,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, referring to the last time Clemson played in the Orange Bowl, a January 1982 victory against Nebraska for the national title. “So many people talk about it. You’ve got kids that were here that are now grown ups, and you’ve got grown ups that are gray-headed old men now, and they’re writing letters, saying, ‘Hey, man, I’d like to get back there one more time.’ “
The Mountaineers? They have never played in the Orange Bowl, but they have played in 10 consecutive bowl games, including BCS bowl victories against Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl. Led by first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia has 11 players, including former Miramar High quarterback Geno Smith, who grew up in South Florida and are aching to win in their backyard.
“They talk about it all the time,” West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode said of his South Florida teammates, who include safety Eain Smith, Ivan McCartney and Stedman Bailey.
“Eain always tells me, even when I dropped him off at the airport for break, ‘We can’t lose this game.’ So I told him we aren’t going to lose it. Hands down, we aren’t going to lose this, because he can’t come back home for the rest of his life and hear that we lost a BCS game in the Orange Bowl.”
Said Smith : “Honestly, this is a dream come true for me.”
Ditto for Geno Smith, who used to watch Orange Bowl games on the stadium Jumbotron from the top of his mother’s car at home. The 6-3, 214-pound junior ranks seventh in passing average, with 331.5 yards per game. He has thrown for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2011, with seven interceptions.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, a junior who originally committed to West Virginia, is 18th nationally in total offense, averaging 289.5 yards per game. He threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns this season, with 10 interceptions.
Both quarterbacks have dazzling stars who lead the charge. Clemson has first-team All-American all-purpose wiz Sammy Watkins, a freshman from Fort Myers who caught 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and is a major kick-returning threat. Clemson also has first-team All-American tight end Dwayne Allen, a 6-4, 255-pound junior who added 577 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
The Mountaineers have Bailey, a redshirt sophomore whose 99.7 receiving yards per game rank 13th nationally, and Tavon Austin, 26th with 88.5. Austin is just as dazzling on special teams: He ranks sixth in punt returns and 17th in kickoff returns.
What does this mean for the defenses?
“The best defense is going to win,” Eain Smith said, “and we look forward to proving that.”
West Virginia runs a rare “odd stack” 3-3-5 defense, with two cornerbacks and three safeties.
“We have different ways to bring pressure and attack guys,” Goode said. “Corner blitzes, safety blitzes, safety-linebacker blitzes, D-line stunts, our coach always says it looks like spaghetti to offenses, guys are just ripping and running everywhere.”
But the Mountaineers will be without injured starting safety Terence Garvin, as well as injured starting running back Dustin Garrison. Holgorsen wouldn’t say who will replace Garvin. The running back job will shift between beefy, between-the-tackles tailback Shawne Alston and the smaller, flashier Andrew Buie.
While the nation prepares for a high-powered South Florida showdown, the coaches have prepared for it all.
“I don’t see that as a concern,” Swinney said about trying to go “toe-to-toe” with an offensive powerhouse. “We’re not in some type of contest or anything. It might be a 6-3 game. I doubt it, but you never know.”
Like Swinney, Holgorsen isn’t concerned about the point tally.
“Our biggest thing as a football team is to figure out how to score one more point,” the Mountaineers coach said.
Clemson All-American defensive end Andre Branch paused for a moment when asked what team’s offense reminded him most of West Virginia.
“Clemson. Clemson University,” he finally said . “High-powered offense and they’re fast, man, fast and athletic.
“We’ll have enough energy for that game. They’ll be amped and we will be, too. Let the best man win.”
On TV tonight
ESPN will televise the Orange Bowl between West Virginia and Clemson at 6:30 p.m.