There was, to be sure, a celebration after the final seconds ticked off the clock. Mountaineer players rushed to dump tubs of ice-cold water on their head coach, Bill Stewart. The massive video scoreboard that hangs over one end zone at Mountaineer Field briefly displayed a message congratulating players and calling them Big East champions.
But in comparison to the scene that ensued when WVU secured its last conference title with a 66-21 pasting of Connecticut in 2007, the party was muted.
A relatively small crowd of only 48,386 was in the stands this time around -- only the second time since a 2003 game against Temple that was played in the midst of a Morgantown blizzard that a Mountaineer home game has drawn less than 50,000 fans.
Those that were in attendance weren’t exactly raucous in their celebration of this Big East championship. After all, they knew that they still needed one more break for their favorite team to receive the league’s BCS bowl berth.
If South Florida is able to defeat the aforementioned Huskies tonight at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Stewart and company will participate in one of college football’s four major bowl games -- most likely the Fiesta Bowl or the Orange Bowl, both of which had representatives at Saturday’s game.
Fans of West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) clearly knew that, as chants of “U-S-F! U-S-F!” were repeated early and often at Mountaineer Field.
Regardless of whether that last break goes WVU’s way, the team completed a stunning turnaround few could have thought possible when it sat at 1-2 in Big East play at the end of October, following a 16-13 overtime loss at UConn.
Fans were openly wondering if Stewart would keep his job, and one person went as far as to rent an airplane to fly above Morgantown before the squad’s game against Cincinnati calling for the head Mountaineer’s ouster.
Four consecutive wins later, the oft-criticized third-year head coach was able to stand at the podium to start his postgame press conference, holding up a T-shirt that proclaimed his team conference champions.
“We came back, and now we are Big East champions,” Stewart said. “I am very, very pleased.”
That title was secured in relatively easy fashion against a Rutgers team that sputtered to its sixth-straight loss, ending it season.
West Virginia held a 14-7 halftime lead and blew the game open with a 21-point outburst to start the second half. The Scarlet Knights added a meaningless touchdown late, but the outcome was more than secure.
It was a banner day for both the Mountaineers’ highly-touted defense (which finished the regular season without allowing any opponent to score more than 21 points in a game) and their oft-maligned offense (which scored three touchdowns in the second half of a Big East game for the second-straight week after managing only one second half touchdown in its first five league games).
Quarterback Geno Smith led the way, completing 23 of 28 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown. It was the 11th-best passing performance in school history in terms of yardage and the most any WVU signal-caller had thrown for since Marc Bulger went for 429 in a 34-31 loss to Missouri in the 1998 Insight.com Bowl.
Fullback Ryan Clarke added three touchdown runs on his seven carries, and receiver Tavon Austin accounted for 167 yards of total offense, including a 46-yard scoring scamper on his only carry of the game.
That was more than enough to overcome another sloppy outing for the offense, which fumbled four times and lost three of them.
“I didn’t think we handled the ball well,” Stewart said. “But we gave great effort. We ended up with over 500 yards [of offense, a season-high 523] and scored 35 points.”
WVU drove all the way to the Rutgers 8-yard line on the first possession of the contest, but Clarke, who has had ball security issues at this this year, lost the ball on a first down run from there. The Scarlet Knights’ Manny Abreu recovered to end the early threat.
It didn’t matter, as the Mountaineers’ stout defense was up to the challenge, forcing a three-and-out to keep field position in the home team’s favor.
West Virginia needed only five plays to go 48 yards after taking over again, and Austin took advantage of a stellar cut block from teammate J.D. Woods to get the majority of his 19 yard touchdown reception after the catch. The hosts took an early 7-0 lead, and it appeared as though all was well for Stewart and company on senior day.
RU (4-8, 1-6) did move the chains once on its ensuing possession, but the Mountaineer defense again quickly put the clamps on its opposition.
Again, the team’s offense moved into scoring position, as Smith hit senior slot receiver Jock Sanders (one of 11 consecutive completions early for the sophomore) for 17 yards on a third-and-11 play to the Knights’ 15. But the senior was stripped by Khaseem Greene, and Rutgers’ Brandon Jones recovered to end another scoring threat.
But WVU’s defense, ever opportunistic, turned things around almost immediately. On the second play of the Scarlet Knights’ next drive, running back Jordan Thomas (filling in for the injured Joe Martinek) appeared to have his progress stopped for several seconds, but referees did not blow the play dead.
Thomas’ body never went to the ground, as the freshman was laying on top of several others in the pile, before he was stripped by the Mountaineers’ J.T. Thomas. The senior linebacker raced out of the pile with the football and was pushed out of bounds at the RU 9-yard line.
Three plays later, Clarke atoned for his fumble at least partially, powering into the end zone from one yard away to make it 14-0.
Rutgers would end the half with a bit of momentum, as it did something few West Virginia opponents have all season -- drive the length of the field against the Mountaineer defense.
Quarterback Chas Dodd completed passes on a pair of third downs to keep the drive alive and found a wide open Thomas for an 18-yard touchdown toss to end a 12-play, 79-yard scoring march.
The Scarlet Knights kept the good feelings on their side, blocking a 37-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal attempt on the next-to-last play of the half. Somehow, despite being largely dominated, the visitors were down only 14-7 at the break.
That changed quickly in the second half, as West Virginia scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions in the final period to end any doubt about the outcome.
Clarke bulled his way into the end zone from one yard out on his team’s first drive of the third quarter, capping a 10-play, 91-yard march that required only one third down conversion to complete.
WVU fumbled again deep in Rutgers territory on its next drive, as Smith, keeping the ball to rush on an option play, lost control of the football just before he would have crossed the goal line.
It didn’t matter. The team’s defense forced another three-and-out, and Austin exploded through a hole in the middle of the field for a 46-yard touchdown run on the second play of the Mountaineers’ ensuing possession.
The option keepers Smith had been running all half set the play up, allowing the speedy sophomore Austin to burst cleanly through the center of the Scarlet Knights’ defense, where no one had a chance to catch him.
West Virginia tacked on one more score for good measure, as Clarke scored again from three yards out to make it 35-7 late in the fourth quarter at the end of a 13-play, 84-yard drive. The celebration, muted though it was, could begin.
How much the Mountaineers will feel like celebrating their share of the Big East championship depends largely on the result of the USF-UConn game Saturday night.
“I want to spend time with my wife and son,” Stewart said of his plans for Saturday night. “I have not seen them in a while, so I am going to put on my sweats and sit in the family room and watch tonight’s game.”