NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- The only way New Year's Day could have been worse for West Virginia was if the Orange Bowl had been a blowout.
The college football world was riveted on the national championship game, however, and other than the pro-Mountaineers crowd that filled the Superdome, few saw their fall in the Sugar Bowl. The rapid and relaxed manner in which Florida picked apart West Virginia brought back to earth a program that entered thinking it could gain a share of the national title.
The Gators spotted West Virginia an early touchdown, but owned the final 50 minutes of a 41-7 rout that was the second-largest margin of victory in the bowl's 60-year history. What began as a crusade for national respect ended with some of the Mountaineers struggling to remember the pleasure of an 11-0 regular season and the Big East Conference championship.
"No matter how many times I remember the games that made us 11-0, nothing can compare to this loss," wide receiver Jay Kearney said. "We had a chance to win the national championship, but we lost the game that really counted."
All season, West Virginia avoided beating itself, but mistakes doomed its first visit to the Sugar Bowl in 40 years. The Mountaineers' volume of errors wasn't overwhelming, but the fumble they lost, the interception they threw and several of the eight penalties they were called for compounded the gap in talent between them and a Florida team that won the Southeastern Conference title.
L All five Gators touchdowns followed a West Virginia mistake:
* Defensive end Steve Perkins was called for unnecessary roughness that kept alive a 90-yard Florida drive that tied the score 7-7.
* Alternate quarterback Darren Studstill, like Perkins a native of Florida, threw an interception that was returned 52 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
* Cornerback Mike Logan's slip led to Florida's only passing touchdown and a 21-7 halftime deficit.
* A pass-interference penalty kept alive an 80-yard drive on Florida's first possession of the second half.
* Teammate Lovett Pernell knocked the ball out of Logan's hands on the ensuing kickoff, and five plays later Florida had its fifth touchdown in 22 minutes.
"We had some stupid penalties that just killed us, and we did some things that were uncharacteristic," West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said. "We got whipped big-time."
After driving 80 yards for a touchdown on its first possession, West Virginia had only 185 yards the rest of the way. Its defense was pounded during 91-, 75- and 80-yard touchdown drives, as Most Valuable Player Errict Rhett showed that Florida isn't just a passing team. He gained 105 yards and tied the Sugar Bowl record with three touchdown runs.
"I didn't realize how small their linebackers were," said Rhett, who ran for 105 yards and tied the Sugar Bowl record with three touchdowns. "Plus, they weren't in real good shape."
West Virginia couldn't keep track of Florida's offensive weapons, but the Gators' skills were exemplified best by the 52-yard interception return by reserve safety Lawrence Wright, which began with rover back Monty Grow hitting Studstill and forcing a weak toss.
A redshirt freshman from Miami who prepped for a year at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy, Wright twice changed direction on the stirring return from which West Virginia never recovered.
"That was unbelievable," coach Steve Spurrier said. "He [Wright] starts reversing field and we're all yelling, 'No, Lawrence, run forward!' Then he runs in untouched. It was the dangdest thing I've ever seen."
While West Virginia tumbled to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and No. 6 in the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll, Florida finished in the Top 5 for the first time since 1985. The Gators lose Rhett, and hope they can hold on to Spurrier. Despite claims by athletic director Jeremy Foley that Spurrier isn't going anywhere, the coach hasn't denied the rumors that the NFL expansion Carolina Panthers are ready to woo him.
Florida, which was winning its first Sugar Bowl in four appearances, also reached the 11-victory plateau for the first time. The only disappointment for the Gators came 15 minutes afterward, when bitter rival Florida State notched its first national championship. The Gators' only losses were to FSU and unbeaten Auburn, which couldn't go to a bowl because of NCAA sanctions.
"It feels good not to be third in the state," said Spurrier, whose team passed Miami in the Sunshine State derby this season. "It's great to win the Sugar Bowl and win 11 games, but as all Florida fans know, winning the SEC championship was a greater thrill."