The second half was what most thought the entire 60 minutes would look like. After re-taking the field, WVU marched up and down the field at will, scoring on its first seven trips -- including touchdowns on its first five drives. None of those touchdown marches took any longer than 2:15.
But it wasn’t always that easy, and it certainly wasn’t that pretty. The Mountaineers didn’t move the chains in the first quarter, were out-gained 179 to 19 in terms of total yardage in the same span and trailed 6-0 early in the second period.
Even after grabbing a 10-6 edge on an 18-yard pass from Geno Smith to Devon Brown, WVU found a way to give it right back, allowing Norfolk State’s Ryan Estep to hit a pair of field goals in the last 90 seconds of the half and take a 12-10 lead into the halftime break.
West Virginia (2-0) was serenaded by loud boos from the 51,911 in attendance on the way to its locker room.
“Obviously, I’m not really pleased with the first half,” said head coach Dana Holgorsen, who indicated he understood why those fans saw fit to boo.
Player of the Game
|Tavon Austin: six receptions, 82 yards, TD; four punt/kick returns, 111 yards, long of 64
He went on to indicate his coaching staff changed nothing schematically during the break. But whatever happened inside that locker room apparently worked.
A far more efficient team emerged in the second half. At halftime, WVU had gained 143 yards on 33 plays. It added another 137 in the first 15 snaps of the second half.
All told, the Mountaineers scored on nine of their final 11 drives. They only punted once after the first quarter ended and went a second-straight game without turning the ball over via fumble or interception. The only other non-scoring drive beside the punt in that span was the final possession of the game, when they ran the clock out.
“I don’t know if we’re trying too hard or if it was a coaching error [in the first half], but either way, I’m proud of the way we came out in the second half,” Holgorsen said. “We got a lot of great snaps, and hopefully it will make us a better team.”
Indeed, while the offense was shoddy enough to draw early boos, it still managed to outpace even the best game of Holgorsen’s predecessor, Bill Stewart. West Virginia gained 533 total yards on Saturday. Stewart’s best offensive game in terms of yardage, a 2010 win over Rutgers, saw WVU tally 523.
Smith, the Mountaineers’ junior quarterback, completed 20 of 34 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. That was the seventh-best passing performance by a WVU signal-caller in program history, and the most since Marc Bulger threw for 429 against Missouri in the 1998 Insight.com Bowl.
Player of the Game
|Pat Miller: five total tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass break-up
“He plays well,” Holgorsen said of Smith. “He gets tempo, and he plays with some bounce and some enthusiasm. He has a voice on the sidelines, and he’s one of the only voices on the sidelines with his experience and leadership.”
His receivers must be pleased with that leadership. Five different players caught touchdown passes (including Brad Starks, who snared a 30-yard strike from backup QB Paul Millard to set the final score).
Smith threw three touchdowns in the decisive second half, hitting Tavon Austin, Tyler Urban and Ivan McCartney for scores of three, 12 and 39 yards, respectively.
They sandwiched those scores around rushing touchdowns from Vernard Roberts (a 3-yard run on the first drive of the second half to give WVU a 17-12 lead) and Dustin Garrison (a 1-yard plunge that blew the game open at 31-12).
But while the running game, like the rest of the offense, improved in the second half, it was awful in the first -- gaining only 39 yards on 15 attempts.
Roberts got the lion’s share of the carries, with 17 attempts for 64 yards. Garrison ran only three times, but gained 19 yards -- almost doubling Roberts’ 3.8 yards per carry average.
Thus, that position battle may still be wide open heading into a road game at Maryland next Saturday.
“We didn’t really think they could run on us, which they couldn’t,” said Norfolk State head coach and WVU alumnus Pete Adrian, in a telling quote from the coach of a team that was 4-4 in the Football Championship Subdivision’s MEAC and lost 31-0 to Rutgers in 2010.
“Our run game was not good,” Holgorsen agreed.
But if West Virginia can pass like it did Saturday, it may not matter.
Austin led all receivers with six catches for 82 yards. Brown, a Wake Forest transfer, had 109 yards on his four grabs. McCartney added another 79 yards. Nine Mountaineers caught at least one pass, and seven had multiple receptions.
For Norfolk State, (1-1) Chris Walley was 16-of-27 passing for 136 yards. Nico Flores added another 61 passing yards on two completions.