Finally, the biggest blemish on Don Nehlen’s record has been removed.
Nehlen avoided his ninth straight bowl loss heading into retirement as West Virginia beat Mississippi 49-38 in the Music City Bowl behind a record performance from oft-injured quarterback Brad Lewis and a wild finish.
“My wife will be able to serve me cereal in a bowl — and I won’t lose it,” Nehlen said.
Nehlen, who finishes with a 202-128-8 record in 30 seasons as a coach, had not won a bowl game since the 1984 Bluebonnet. That also was the final game as a player for his replacement, Rich Rodriguez, who was hired last month.
In fact, Nehlen had not enjoyed a lead in a bowl since 1994, a span of four games. Two years ago, the last time it went to a bowl, West Virginia fell behind 24-3 at halftime to Missouri in the Insight.com Bowl and never recovered.
Having Fun With the Offense
This time, West Virginia (7-5) turned the tables behind five TD passes and 318 yards from Lewis, who had played much of the season with a sore knee and throwing hand and had eight TDs in the regular season.
“He was hitting them on the money,” Nehlen said. “That was almost a flawless first half.”
Nehlen said all week he planned to open up his lethargic offense and have some fun. With season-long problems on special teams — including blocked punts and bad snaps — he went as far as saying he might not want to punt on fourth down.
He didn’t have to. The Mountaineers’ first punt came in the final seconds of the third quarter with his team enjoying a 40-point lead.
And even then, Nehlen didn’t stop coaching.
Nehlen, who turns 65 on New Year’s Day, chased down the referees on a pair of defensive penalties in the third quarter.
After Mississippi made the game interesting midway through the fourth quarter, he jumped into his sideline huddles and pointed a finger at his players.
They weren’t going to let this one slip away. Lance Frazier’s 40-yard interception return with three minutes left finished Mississippi’s chances of a miracle comeback.
As Nehlen accepted the Music City Bowl trophy for his team, West Virginia fans screamed, “Nehlen! Nehlen!” He grabbed a microphone and publicly thanked them, then went to the locker room to be with his team.
“I just told them basically, as a coaching staff, we love them all,” he said. “A lot of hugs, and they were all sweating.”
“Coach is a strong man,” said offensive lineman Tanner Russell. “But the strongest man is one who knows he’s allowed to cry. There was a lot of emotion in there. It’s irreplaceable.”
18 Plays, 5 Touchdowns
If there was a team that had a reason not to be focused, it was the Mountaineers, who had endured a month’s worth of distractions.
Besides the bowl streak and Nehlen’s final game, Rodriguez made people on campus nervous by saying he would not retain the majority of Nehlen’s assistants, who also were coaching their final games today.
Also, Rodriguez said in his first news conference that no players’ jobs were secure. So some, including Lewis, a junior, wondered if they were starting their final games.
Lewis responded. He threw two TD passes apiece to Khori Ivy and Antonio Brown. Wes Ours caught a 40-yard TD pass and scored on a 1-yard run. Shawn Terry returned the second-half kickoff 99 yards for a score.
The Mountaineers needed just 18 total plays to score five first-half touchdowns.
“I wanted to walk off this field knowing I played 100 percent for coach Nehlen and myself,” Lewis said.
West Virginia’s eight straight bowl losses had tied it with South Carolina. Although the NCAA doesn’t keep records for bowl futility, the streak was believed to be the longest ever in Division I-A. South Carolina’s streak was from 1946 to 1998 before it beat the Mountaineers in the 1995 Carquest Bowl.