GLENDALE, Ariz. – As expected, the Fiesta Bowl sent forth a national championship contender for 2008. West Virginia, all you mountain mommas. The Mountaineers kick-started their campaign Wednesday with a drop-kick of Oklahoma. And while there are several schools worthy of inclusion on the early watch list, West Virginia's walloping of the Sooners – when many called for a rout the other way – cemented their status at or near the top. Think not? Think again. Remember, if not for a loss to Pitt in their regular-season finale when quarterback Pat White — Wednesday's wild man — was injured, the Mountaineers might be soon hoisting a crystal football instead of the bejeweled Fiesta version. They're that good. And they'll be that good, if not better, again. West Virginia returns nine starters on offense, including White and all five big boys along the offensive line. Running back Steve Slaton might opt for an early entry for the NFL, yet that might be a blessing, after seeing Noel Divine dice the Sooners for 243 all-purpose yards. White was wonderful at the controls of the Mountaineers' spread option attack. He ran for a game-high 150 yards and rebounded from erratic early passing to complete 10-of-19 throws for 176 yards and two touchdowns. "Very impressed,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops. But Divine, Slaton's backup, was electric. Running. Receiving. Returning kicks. Divine averaged 8.6 yards per rush during the regular season and 8.3 against an OU defense depleted by injury, yet still figured for capable. He's not just an alternative to Slaton, he's an upgrade. "I mean, the credit goes to Pat White and Noel Divine,” said OU linebacker Curtis Lofton. So an offense that rolled up 525 yards — and a staggering 359 rushing — could, hold your breath Big East brethren, return a bigger beast. The Mountaineers lose seven starters on defense, but that side of the ball hasn't been a strength. There's also a non-conference schedule that includes a home date with Auburn and a visit to Colorado, but both are more than winnable. West Virginia does need a coach, although the search for Rich Rodriguez's replacement should be called off immediately. Bill Stewart, the interim coach, represented the school and the state amazingly during his week in Arizona and again Wednesday night. "I speak for all the players when I say he should be our head coach,” White said after the game. Stewart's team — and by the end of bowl prep, they were his team — clearly responded to his relaxed style, playing loose. That style, with so many weapons, would serve WVU well in 2008. As for OU, there's work to do both on the field and among a voting media growing increasingly skeptical about of the Sooners' series of BCS bowl breakdowns. Stoops said his squad didn't need to shake Wednesday night's loss, but digest it. "They don't need to get it out of their minds too soon,” Stoops said. "We really need to be… to really look at what they need to do differently. "Obviously, I need to do things differently as a head coach.” Still, the Sooners should be in the national title talk. But the talk will be hushed at the outset. They were the team expected to drive forward from the Fiesta Bowl as the top contender. Instead, they'll be shouting from the mountains in Morgantown. What was it John Denver sang? Almost Heaven, West Virginia.
West Virgina quarterback Pat White had a field day against Oklahoma on Wednesday night in the Fiesta Bowl. White gained 326 total yards on offense and threw two touchdown passes. BY STEVE SISNEY, THE OKLAHOMAN