The 56,179 in attendance at Milan Puskar Stadium were once again restless when WVU headed to its locker room at the intermission with a mere 10-9 lead.
But by now, Mountaineer fans must be accustomed to Dana Holgorsen’s squad taking control in the second half. This contest followed the same pattern, as West Virginia scored 23 points in the third quarter and a total of 33 unanswered points to start the second half.
“We wouldn’t be 5-1 if we weren’t showing some kind of consistency,” the first-year head coach said. “We have success offensively. We all want to score every time we have it, but that’s not reality. I think we’re all happy with 43 points.”
The tenor of the game changed entirely as UConn was driving on its first possession of the third quarter. The Huskies had a first-and-10 at the Mountaineers’ 13-yard line, preparing to take the lead with either a field goal or touchdown.
Quarterback Johnny McEntee pulled the ball down and began to run, but was spun around, allowing WVU cornerback Pat Miller to knock it free. Linebacker Jewone Snow scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 83 yards to the UConn 12. Two plays later, West Virginia’s Geno Smith found Tavon Austin for a score, making it 17-9.
“At the end of the day, this is high-level football, and you have to make plays,” said Huskies head coach Paul Pasqualoni. “They made the plays, and that play that linebacker made hitting Johnny, that’s a key play and a big play in the game.”
“You can’t win a championship unless you have three sides of the equation,” Holgorsen said. “The thing I like about this team right now is all three sides of the ball understand their jobs.”
Momentum had permanently shifted to the home team’s sideline. The Mountaineer defense forced a quick three-and-out, and on WVU’s first play after UConn’s Cole Wagner boomed a 63-yard punt, Smith hit Stedman Bailey about 20 yards downfield. Bailey stutter-stepped, making a Huskies defender fall in the process, and he ran in untouched for an 84-yard score. The floodgates had officially opened.
“The one that took the wind out of our sails was the 84-yard one,” Pasqualoni said.
Snow made another huge play on defense, as the redshirt freshman teamed up with defensive end Bruce Irvin to sack McEntee in his own end zone for a safety. Austin returned the ensuing free kick to midfield, and Brad Starks made a highlight-worthy catch for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 33-9 at the end of the quarter.
West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) added another 10 points early in the fourth quarter before Holgorsen had seen enough from his starting quarterback and sent him to the bench with a 43-9 lead.
Backup Paul Millard’s first pass was picked off and returned for a Huskies touchdown to set the final score, but that was the only time UConn even sniffed at the end zone after Snow’s game-changing fumble return.
Player of the Game
The longest drive the visitors managed after that play covered only 13 yards on four plays. Five of Pasqualoni’s team’s final six drives ended in punts, and the sixth ended with WVU’s third quarter safety.
“The defense played fantastic,” Holgorsen said. “That was a heck of a second half. That was a dominating performance from our defense. The run defense [was good], we got after the passer and created turnovers.”
It wasn’t always that easy, however.
Holgorsen called out Mountaineer fans at his Tuesday press conference for a poor turnout on Homecoming Saturday, when only 46,603 saw WVU beat Bowling Green 55-10 in chilly, rainy conditions in Morgantown.
Attendance was far better this time around, with the notable exception of a student section that was perhaps two-thirds full at kickoff time. Students slowly got to their seats during the first quarter, but the sections never filled to capacity.
Those that showed up late only missed another slow start for West Virginia. UConn possessed the ball for more than 11 minutes in the first quarter, and both teams managed only a field goal in the period. But Dave Teggart kicked a 53-yarder on the first play of the second quarter to give the Huskies a 6-3 edge.
It held up for most of the quarter. But on a drive that began about 5:00 before halftime, WVU’s offense managed to dig itself out of some poor down-and-distance situations.
It converted a third-and-10 with a 24-yard Smith pass to Stedman Bailey, then benefited from a holding penalty on the Huskies’ Byron Jones on another third-and-10 play. Dustin Garrison subsequently ran in from 14 yards out, giving the Mountaineers a 10-6 lead.
Player of the Game
83-yard Fumble Return
Sensing momentum shifting in his team’s direction, Holgorsen called for a hurry-up tempo when his team got the ball back. It drove to the Connecticut 40-yard line, where it faced a fourth-and-1 situation. Smith hurried his team to the line and tried a quarterback sneak -- West Virginia’s first play under center in the entire season -- which failed miserably.
The Huskies (2-4, 0-1) took possession with 55 seconds until the break and moved quickly. They reached the Mountaineers’ 5-yard line, but didn’t have enough time to take a shot at the end zone. Teggart came on once more, made an easy 22-yard field goal and got UConn within 10-9 at the break.
But players insisted there was no panic in the locker room, perhaps largely because they have already experienced this several times in the 2011 season.
The slow start didn’t stop West Virginia on Saturday, just as it hasn’t all season. WVU topped the 40-point mark for the third time in six games this season, something the program only did three times in three seasons under Bill Stewart’s tenure as head coach.
Smith had another phenomenal day, throwing for 450 yards on 27-of-45 passing. The junior tossed four scoring passes. He was only 13 yards shy of his school-record 463 yard performance, set only two games ago in a loss to LSU.
Bailey, Smith’s teammate at Miramar (Fla.) High School, once again displayed good chemistry with his quarterback, catching seven passes for 178 yards and two scores. It was the redshirt sophomore’s fourth-straight game topping the century mark. No one else in school history has ever done that even three consecutive times.
For UConn, McEntee was 21-of-37 for 193 yards. He was sacked five times. Lyle McCombs was the team’s leading rusher with 73 yards on 20 attempts. The Huskies did not score an offensive touchdown.