The Cardinals were just the latest victim for a WVU defense that has rendered essentially every opponent this season utterly ineffective on offense.
U of L (5-6, 2-4) came into Saturday’s contest averaging 192.2 yards per game on the ground, the best in the Big East Conference. The Mountaineers held their hosts to a paltry 26 yards rushing -- and Louisville’s leading rusher was its punter, Chris Philpott, who gained 21 yards on a fake punt in the first half.
First-year coach Charlie Strong’s offense didn’t fare any better through the air, as quarterback Justin Burke (who again started in place of the injured Adam Froman) completed only 12 of 24 passes for 145 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked four times.
Through 10 games, West Virginia still has yet to allow any opponent to register more than 21 points in a game -- the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that can make that claim. It has yielded a third down conversion on only two of its opponents’ last 25 opportunities in those situations.
“Their defense is very good,” said Strong. “They are the No. 4 defense in the country, and they played like it today.”
But yet again, the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) needed their defense to play at an extraordinarily high level to win the game, as the team’s offense once again could not find a way to forge a two-possession lead and managed only three points in the second half.
Seven of WVU’s 13 offensive possessions went for fewer than 10 yards, and the team’s longest drive in the second half only traveled 31 yards.
“For the offensive enthusiasts, it wasn’t what you came to see,” West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart said. “For that, I’m sorry. But it’s a win.”
Still, Stewart’s offense did just enough in the first half to secure the outcome, as Louisville’s offense only managed one scoring drive all day -- and that came on its first possession of the contest.
Louisville’s rushing game was utterly stuffed, but the Cards took advantage of a pair of passes from Burke to tight end Cameron Graham (gaining 17 and 26 yards, respectively) to get in position for a field goal. Philpott’s kick was true from 43 yards away, and the hosts took an early 3-0 lead.
It looked like momentum might be firmly on U of L’s side to start, as WVU had gone three-and-out on its first drive and faced a third-and-8 on its second possession. But a 25-yard toss from quarterback Geno Smith to receiver Tavon Austin on that play kick-started an offense that had been stuck in neutral.
Slot receiver Jock Sanders picked up 11 more yards on another third-and-8 in the red zone six plays later, and Noel Devine rushed into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown on the next snap. West Virginia answered the Cardinals’ early score and made it 7-3.
But the Mountaineers’ much-maligned offense, which has been its own worst enemy this season, had another ugly moment early in the second quarter.
On the first play of a drive that ended in a Louisville punt, Smith was hit from behind by the Cardinals’ Rodney Gnat. The football popped free and bounced back into the end zone, where U of L’s Daniel Brown pounced on it for a touchdown. That made it 10-7 in favor of Strong’s squad.
“Our best offensive lineman [Don Barclay] got beat by their best defensive end and [they] got a touchdown out of it,” Stewart said. “You can’t win every single slug out there. It’s an 80-slug fight. You can’t win all 80.”
That play could have turned momentum, as the 51,772 in attendance at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium started to get more involved. But Smith quieted them by finding J.D. Woods for 13 yards on a third-and-10 play on the ensuing drive.
The WVU quarterback was then awarded a controversial timeout, as he turned and signaled to the official just as the football was being snapped to him by center Joey Madsen. The ball hit Smith in the back, and several Mountaineers pounced on it, resulting in what would have been about a third-and-15 situation.
But the officials convened and determined Smith had signaled for the timeout just before the snap, negating the fumble. The red-clad faithful voiced their displeasure with that call, booing loudly before and after the break.
Smith took advantage of his extra opportunity. He found Devine wide open on the very next play, and the running back dragged tacklers all the way to the Cardinals’ 2-yard line for a 48-yard gain. One play later, Ryan Clarke powered his way into the end zone, and West Virginia had a 14-10 lead, which it took into the locker room.
That would be enough, as the Mountaineer defense allowed Louisville only 19 yards of offense in the third quarter. The hosts never so much as entered the red zone, and their longest drive of the day covered a mere 43 yards.
But the team’s offense could only add a field goal, which came on WVU’s first possession of the second half. That made it 17-10, and thus a game that the visitors had seemingly dominated was still in doubt in the final minutes.
U of L never seriously threatened to tie, however. It drove to the West Virginia 46-yard line before turning the ball over on downs with 4:59 to play and got one last chance after Tyler Bitancurt had a potential game-securing 41-yard field goal tipped by Josh Chichester.
Yet again, the Mountaineer defenders were more than equal to the challenge. On the very next play, safety Sidney Glover tipped a Burke pass, which was intercepted (to the surprise of no one) by cornerback Keith Tandy, who continues to find himself in the right place at the right time -- it was the junior’s sixth pick of the season.
“He made a good play on it,” Burke said of Tandy. “I probably forced it.”
Smith was able to line up under center and kneel out the clock, and WVU secured its second road win of the season in its fourth try. Meanwhile, the Cards failed to get a sixth win -- and the bowl eligibility that comes with it -- in their home finale.
“What they have to realize if they want to get to a bowl game is they have one more game, so let’s go win the next one,” said Strong, whose team must win at Rutgers if it hopes to go bowling. “We had our chances here at home ... and we just didn’t get it done.”
West Virginia’s sophomore quarterback Smith completed nine of 20 passes for 133 yards. He, like his Louisville counterpart Burke, was sacked four times. Devine was the team’s leading rusher and receiver, gaining 58 yards on the ground on 23 carries with one touchdown. The senior added another 61 yards on three receptions.
U of L averaged only nine-tenths of a yard per rush. Philpott’s 21-yard fake made him the team’s leading rusher. Jeremy Wright, one of several running backs who attempted to fill in for Bilal Powell (who was “battling a sickness” according to Strong), added 20 more yards on 13 carries.
Powell, the nation’s fifth-leading rusher coming into Saturday, was shut out. He had four carries but netted zero yards on his Senior Day at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
With WVU’s arch-rival, Pitt, also winning on Saturday afternoon (a 17-10 victory over South Florida), the annual Backyard Brawl takes on added significance in the Big East championship race.
The two old foes will battle once again at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon, each holding aspirations of claiming the league’s BCS bowl berth as the regular season nears its end.