The outcome -- a 41-31 triumph on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium -- seemed highly unlikely at halftime, when WVU had already yielded those 31 points and trailed by 10.
The same defense that had yielded points on a stretch of five out of seven RU possessions (and was on pace to follow up a week in which it helped give up 49 points to Syracuse with an even more embarrassing showing) didn’t give up a single point in the final 30 minutes and allowed only two second-half drives of more than 23 yards.
The offense that had only worked in fits and spurts scored two touchdowns in a span of 1:28, turning a 31-28 deficit into a 41-31 lead.
And the special teams unit that had another difficult day at the office (a second-straight week with a missed extra point, a kickoff out of bounds, a botched field goal attempt before halftime) came up with a game-saving play when Darwin Cook broke up a fake field goal pass with 11:02 to go.
Brandon Coleman was wide open in the end zone on the play, but Cook -- who never turned back to face the ball -- somehow made up ground just in time to get his body in the way of the ball.
That finally swung momentum totally in WVU’s favor. The visitors followed up with an 89-yard drive to take their first lead in 33 minutes, the offense not so much as facing a third down until it was at the Rutgers 1-yard line. There and then, Shawne Alston was stuffed.
But even though his team only trailed 31-28, Holgorsen opted to keep his offense on the field for fourth down. Figuring the defense would “bunch up” inside expecting a run, he called for a quick slant pass to inside receiver Tyler Urban. It wasn’t available, but Smith pulled the ball down and did the job himself, diving for the goal line and a 34-31 lead (with Bitancurt missing the PAT).
“I just made a decision,” Holgorsen said when asked why he went for it on fourth down.
“They actually did a good job and manned it up, so it was a thing where it was just me and the safety. I just beat him to the goal line,” Smith said.
Player of the Game
Two plays later, Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova fumbled, and the Mountaineers’ Julian Miller pounced on the loose ball -- the senior’s second fumble recovery of the night.
It only took another three snaps for West Virginia to seal the victory. Tavon Austin took a quick quick screen pass from Smith, made a would-be tackler miss and took advantage of several strong blocks to run in for a 20-yard touchdown. It was 41-31 with 4:50 to play.
So what changed from the first half to the second?
“The number one thing is effort,” Holgorsen said. “It’s effort. When adversity hits and you don’t make a play, what are you going to do? Are you going to shut it down? Or are you going to line up and play even harder? We did that in the second half.”
But not in the first.
The teams combined for 31 points in the first quarter, engaging in a back-and-forth shootout to see which defense could earn a stop first. Rutgers took advantage of good field position to open things up, as San San Te booted a 40-yard field goal after a 5-yard “drive” to give the hosts a 3-0 lead.
WVU wasted little time responding, as Alston ran around the left side of his offensive line, broke free and actually pulled away on his way to pay dirt. Fifty-two yards later, the Mountaineers had a 7-3 lead.
West Virginia’s defense forced the Scarlet Knights into a three-and-out, and it appeared momentum was on the visitors’ sideline.
But Smith, WVU’s junior quarterback, simply dropped the ball to the turf on a third-and-7 play -- he was not pressured, hit or in his throwing motion when the ball came out -- and RU recovered at the Mountaineers’ 11-yard line. Mohamed Sanu stayed on his feet through a Keith Tandy tackle attempt on a subsequent third down and ran in easily for a touchdown to make it 10-7 for Rutgers.
Again, WVU was equal to the task. Tavon Austin took an end around pitch, accelerated through the first two levels of the black-clad defenders, picked up a solid block from a fellow receiver on the edge and sprinted in easily, making it 14-10 with an 80-yard score.
But Tandy was victimized again on a 45-yard pass from Nova to Mark Harrison, a touchdown that put the hosts back in front at 17-14.
RU squandered a chance to go up two scores after forcing a punt, as a poor center-quarterback exchange was scooped up by the Mountaineers’ Julian Miller at the Rutgers 7. Two carries later, Alston had another TD, plowing in from two yards out to make it 21-17.
But Rutgers managed its way down the field methodically, taking advantage of two separate pass interference fouls on Pat Miller to convert a second-and-3 and a fourth-and-10, respectively. Jawan Jamison muscled into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown, and the hosts again led at 24-21.
The Knights then forced a three-and-out, drove to WVU’s 18-yard line and Schiano opted to be aggressive on fourth down, needing about half a yard to convert. The move paid off, as Jamison broke free off the right side of his line and scored.
Trailing 31-21 and holding almost 3:00 on the clock (and a pair of timeouts), West Virginia’s offense appeared to have a chance to draw closer before intermission. It needed only five plays to move to the Rutgers 15-yard line, but chose to rush Alston there. He lost a yard, and Holgorsen called timeout.
Player of the Game
8 total tackles
2 passes broken up
What followed was perhaps the lowest point of the season for West Virginia. Given that the team was coming off a 26-point drubbing at Syracuse the week before, that’s saying something.
Behind by double digits, its defense yielding points on a stretch of five out of seven Scarlet Knights possessions and knowing his team would have to kick off to RU to start the third quarter, Holgorsen planned to get points. But stunningly, he called another run play, and when Andrew Buie was tackled for another loss, the head coach didn’t spend his last timeout immediately.
The clock ran, and the offense waited for the ball to be spotted, hoping for one last shot at the end zone. But time threatened to run out first, and Holgorsen was lucky to get a timeout called with one second left before half.
“We didn’t sub, so we thought they would spot it quicker, and it just took too much time,” he explained. “I was trying to get it set and take a shot, but we just ran out of time, so we called timeout.”
The subsequent field goal attempt was disastrous, as Michael Molinari’s hold never was properly set and Tyler Bitancurt never even got to try the kick.
"[Rutgers'] effort was tremendous, and we knew it was going to be tremendous," Holgorsen said. "They played really hard, and they played really well. But we felt like we went out and outplayed them in the second half."
Indeed, the WVU defense forced two straight three-and-outs to start the third quarter and turn momentum to set up the comeback.
Smith had a relatively pedestrian effort, throwing for a season-low 218 yards on 20-of-31 passing. He tossed two touchdowns. Alston led a strong performance on the ground with 110 yards on 14 carries and two scores, while Austin added another 96 and a TD.
For Rutgers, Jamison gained 96 yards on 19 carries. Nova completed only 18 of his 46 passes, but gained 235 yards and threw two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice.