Tyler Bitancurt’s kick was cleanly blocked, recovered and returned for an 82-yard touchdown by the Cards’ Andrew Johnson. Instead of a 24-24 game, No. 24 WVU found itself facing a 31-21 deficit it simply could not overcome, as Louisville added one more score on a clock-killing drive and held on for a 38-35 win at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Mountaineers’ third loss of the season followed the script of their first two. Special teams errors, spotty defense and costly turnovers conspired against them.
In addition to the blocked field goal return touchdown, WVU had two of its three punts go for 12 and 11 yards. Its offense lost two fumbles; one which killed a fourth quarter drive and another that set up U of L’s Chris Philpott for an easy field goal in the third quarter. And the defense gave up 351 yards, four touchdowns in five Louisville red zone trips and 38 points -- easily the most the Cardinals have scored all season.
“Not a very hard one to figure out: you lose the turnover battle, you go 0-for-2 on field goals, that gets you beat,” Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Despite those problems, West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) put up a late rally. It overcame poor field position to drive 96 yards and score on an 8-yard touchdown run by Shawne Alston to draw within 31-28. More than 9:00 remained -- plenty of time for Holgorsen’s quick-strike offense.
But WVU’s defense, which had played considerably better in the second half than it did in a sloppy first 30 minutes, simply could not get off the field on the Cards’ ensuing drive.
Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater stayed composed in the game’s biggest moments, scrambling around to buy time in a chaotic backfield before hitting DeVante Parker for 11 yards on a third-and-7 play.
Louisville’s Dominique Brown just converted a fourth-and-1 at the Mountaineer 43-yard line. Bridgewater threw to Brown for 21 yards on a third-and-3. And then Brown finished it off, running in from three yards out to give Charlie Strong’s team a two-possession lead with less than two minutes to play.
WVU attempted one more late rally, as quarterback Geno Smith found Stedman Bailey for a 1-yard touchdown with 43 seconds left. But Brown -- who, along with Bridgewater, was Louisville’s star of the day -- recovered an onside kick to seal the Cardinals’ first win in Morgantown since 1990.
Player of the Game
“I am so happy for our team, and I’m happy with how well they responded,” Strong, U of L’s second-year coach, said.
Indeed, Louisville (5-4, 3-1) had to respond early, and did admirably.
Despite a quick start from West Virginia (after a long return of the opening kickoff by Brad Starks and a 25-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Tavon Austin), it was U of L that held momentum for essentially the entire first quarter.
The Cards responded swiftly to the Mountaineers’ opening TD. Brown, a sophomore running back, scampered 55 yards on a third-and-2 play to set up an 8-yard scoring dash by teammate Jeremy Wright and make it 7-7.
“They scored on the third play of the game, and I clicked over to [defensive coordinator Vance] Bedford and said, ‘This is going to be a shoot-out. Our offense can respond,’” Strong recalled.
After a WVU punt, Louisville went on the march again. Bridgewater found Eli Rogers wide open for a 37-yard gain. Three plays later, Senorise Perry easily ran in 13 yards for a touchdown on a sweep play out of the Cardinals’ “Wild Card” formation and the visitors had a 14-7 edge.
Bruce Irvin sacked Bridgewater on back-to-back plays to stop Louisville’s next drive, and Smith threw an impressive fade pass to Stedman Bailey for a 5-yard score to tie things up.
West Virginia’s defense forced a three-and-out, and the Mountaineers seemed to be claiming momentum. Holgorsen’s offense converted three third downs to keep its ensuing drive alive, and Alston scored a 2-yard touchdown to make it 21-14.
“Both offensively and defensively, we played well in spurts,” Holgorsen said. “But we didn’t dominate in any area.”
The hosts got the ball back with a chance to build upon that lead late in the half, but their drive stalled and Michael Molinari shanked his second punt of the half -- this one an 11-yard effort after a 12-yard kick in the first quarter.
Player of the Game
6 total tackles
3 tackles for loss
That allowed U of L one more chance on offense with good field position. It took advantage.
Bridgewater hit Parker for 26 yards on the first play of the drive and made a highlight-reel play with a shovel pass to Victor Anderson for nine yards to get to WVU’s 4. From there, the young signal-caller rolled right, waited patiently and found Rogers along the back line of the end zone for a touchdown to tie it at 21-21 as the teams headed to the locker room.
“Ted just continues to get better and better,” Strong said. “As he has gained [experience], he has developed ... Teddy is doing a good job of managing the game and making the throws.”
Louisville took advantage of an Andrew Buie fumble in the third quarter, allowing Philpott to hit a 39-yard field goal (after three negative-yardage plays for the Cards’ offense) and give the visitors a 24-21 edge.
That held up until the earliest moments of the fourth quarter, when Bitancurt’s field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown -- the first time that had happened to a WVU team since a 19-13 loss at Virginia Tech in 2004.
“We were incredibly competitive in two areas of special teams and incredibly not competitive in two areas of special teams,” Holgorsen said.
For West Virginia, Smith was 31-of-44 passing for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Bailey caught eight of those Smith tosses for 118 yards and two scores, while Austin added another 90 yards and a touchdown on seven grabs.
The Mountaineers rang up 533 yards of total offense and scored more than any other team has against U of L this season, but went without points on two of their six red zone trips.
“I really don’t care about the number of yards,” Holgorsen said. “We had the ball in the red zone and didn’t convert.”
Bridgewater was an efficient 21-of-27 for 246 yards. He was sacked four times, picked once and threw one score. Brown added 69 yards rushing and a touchdown on 14 carries.
The Cards will now become WVU’s biggest fans next week, as they need Cincinnati -- the only Big East team to defeat Louisville thus far this season -- to suffer a loss. The Mountaineers and Bearcats will play at Paul Brown Stadium next Saturday. Kickoff time will be announced on Sunday.