January 03, 2008

Bruising fullback Owen Schmitt makes breakout play in final college game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Owen Schmitt rumbled down the field like a dump truck at full throttle -- bound for the end zone on the breakout play of West Virginia's 48-28 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

It was a fitting end to the college career of a player interim coach Bill Stewart called "the heart and soul of our football team."

The 57-yard run for West Virginia's first touchdown Wednesday night was the longest of Schmitt's career. Two other long ones also came in bowl games -- 54 yards in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, 52 yards in the 2006 Gator Bowl.

"He's the best," Mountaineers running back Steve Slaton said. "He proved it on the field. He did the walk."

As usual, though, Schmitt's real work was done on behalf of others.

His lead block of Darien Williams cleared the way for Noel Devine's 17-yard touchdown run that put West Virginia ahead 27-15.

Then Schmitt lined up in the slot and threw a key block on Pat White's 42-yard run to set up the next West Virginia score.

"It's meant a lot," a choked-up Schmitt said on the field after the game, "the fact they gave me a chance to play on this team. I've taken full advantage. I thank everyone in the Mountaineer organization -- our fans, we're family. I can't say enough about them."

The 6-foot-3, 260-pound fullback with a smoothed-down mohawk haircut wrapped up his rise from walk-on to one of the toughest, hardest-hitting players in college football.

The team's postseason media guide lists him with 10 career broken face masks (his own). He is a workout wonder in the weight room, where he can squat 625 pounds and bench press 365.

Schmitt served as a bruising sidekick to the Mountaineers' sleek, speedy Devine, White and Slaton. They run past defenders, Schmitt runs over them or delivers a bone-crunching block.

The Mountaineers were plodding along with a 6-3 lead when Schmitt burst through the line into the open field en route to the team's first touchdown with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half.

"I was just glad I didn't get caught from behind," he said.

West Virginia gave back 7,500 tickets because it couldn't sell them, costing the school $1 million. But the loud, yellow-clad minority in University of Phoenix stadium rose to its feet to cheer arguably the most popular player of the Rich Rodriguez era.

"A lot of pride, baby," Schmitt said as the team celebrated on the field and the fans stood and cheered long after the game. "All these people coming this far to see us when they could have stayed in front of their television. I have tremendous respect for all these people who are here right now."

Of course, Rodriguez wasn't in the building. The coach who had decided to accept Schmitt as a walk-on transfer from NCAA Division III Wisconsin-River Falls three seasons ago resigned Dec. 16 to take the Michigan job. The school sued Rodriguez for $4 million.

Schmitt, an honor student, did not criticize his coach's departure.

"You've got to do what you've got to do sometimes," Schmitt said at the time. "He did all he could for us. As far as I know he did a lot of great things for this university."

Giving Schmitt a chance was one of them.

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