WVU’s Eain Smith blocked a 31-yard Tony Miliano would-be game-tying kick on the last play of regulation. West Virginia players sprinted off their sideline to celebrate a 24-21 win over No. 23 Cincinnati, the last in a series of emotional displays from a team that had precious few such moments in the first nine weeks of the season.
“It’s not as much about what we did or didn’t do offensively," Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It’s about how much energy we played with.”
Indeed, after preaching this week about a lack of emotion on his team's sidelines and a disturbing lack of interest in what teammates on other sides of the ball were doing, there were no such issues this week.
Players whooped and hollered after big plays all game long and spilled off the sidelines and onto the turf on several occasions.
It was somewhat appropriate that the Mountaineers’ cheerleading came in a game that, perhaps more than any of their other six wins this season, saw plays on all three sides contribute to the victory.
“It was a great team win," quarterback Geno Smith said. "We faced some adversity all throughout the game, but I think we turned the corner today. Everyone was playing for one another and we were out there trying to make plays for our teammates.”
In that area, WVU succeeded.
Special teams made the game-sealing play with Smith’s field goal block. The team’s defense contributed a first half touchdown to build a two-possession lead. And the offense answered UC’s second half comeback with a gotta-have-it drive in the fourth quarter.
The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) had just claimed their first lead since the earliest minutes when Isaiah Pead ran in for a 10-yard touchdown, making it 21-17 with 13:20 left. The hosts had rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit with a pair of scores and seemed to have all the momentum, their defense having only yielded one first down since the Mountaineers’ first drive of the third quarter.
But West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) gamely rallied. Facing a third-and-9 at UC’s 44-yard line, quarterback Geno Smith found Stedman Bailey for a 13-yard gain. Three plays later, the Mountaineers converted a third-and-15 with a 23-yard pass from Smith to Tavon Austin to move into the red zone.
A few snaps later, Shawne Alston scored from one yard out and WVU held a 24-21 lead.
Player of the Game
The Mountaineers’ defense forced a pair of three-and-outs on Cincinnati’s next two possessions, but the offense could not muster a drive to put the game out of reach. Tyler Bitancurt missed a 47-yard field goal with the inside Paul Brown Stadium swirling to give the hosts one more chance.
They nearly made good on it. UC quarterback Munchie Legaux, playing after starter Zach Collaros was injured while being sacked by WVU’s Bruce Irvin in the first half, threw to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins for 34 yards on the Bearcats’ next play. He found Thompkins for another 14 yards two plays later. Pead rushed for six yards, and with time winding down, coach Butch Jones’ team was in the red zone with a chance to win.
But Legaux threw incomplete on second down, and on third-and-4, he was corralled by the Mountaineers’ Julian Miller after a 1-yard gain. Jones called timeout with three seconds remaining to set up Miliano’s kick and a potential overtime.
Eain Smith, West Virginia’s senior safety, ensured that didn’t happen. In a crowd of white shirts in the middle of the field, it was his hand that denied Miliano’s attempt a chance at the uprights.
“Everyone was trying to take credit for it. Guys who weren't on the field were taking credit for it," Holgorsen said. "Heck, I would have tried to take credit for it too."
WVU players celebrated wildly, likely before they even knew arch-rival Pittsburgh had beaten Louisville 21-14. That result, combined with the Mountaineers’ win, means both participants in the Backyard Brawl are a mere half-game out of first place in the Big East.
"We have three games to go win a conference championship," Jones said, his team still holding a half-game lead in the standings. "You know, that’s kind of our mind-set right now.”
But Cincinnati missed out on a chance to claim a commanding two-game lead in the league, which would have put it on an almost sure path to a third BCS bowl berth in the last four seasons.
The Bearcats’ offense was supposed to be the biggest rival to Holgorsen’s spread attack in the Big East, and the contest was billed as a likely shootout. The earliest stages made it look like the game would live up to that billing.
Cincinnati needed only three plays to move 60 yards on its first drive, with running back Pead blasting through multiple Mountaineer tackle attempts on his way to a highlight-reel worthy 40-yard touchdown run.
West Virginia, which had an inauspicious first drive that ended in a three-and-out, promptly answered on its next chance. Bailey left his defender in the dust with a well-executed double move, and Smith lofted a deep pass perfectly over the receiver’s shoulder for a 60-yard score to make it 7-7.
Player of the Game
7 total tackles
1 pass break-up
1 fumble recovery
It looked like the Bearcats would respond in kind. They benefited from a defensive holding call to move the chains, but were stopped again in a goal-to-go situation and prepared to send on kicker Tony Miliano for a chip-shot field goal. But WVU committed another penalty (one of nine on the Mountaineers in the first half), and with a fourth-and-goal on the 2-yard line, Jones opted to keep his team’s offense on the field.
It didn’t work. Collaros kept the ball himself and was met by multiple defenders short of the goal line.
And with that play, something shifted and a game most imagined would be a shootout turned into one of field position and defense.
Each team punted twice before Holgorsen’s club finally broke the gridlock, with Smith and Austin teaming up to convert on a third-and-16 (a 39-yard pass) and a third-and-5 (a 9-yard toss). That tandem set up a 28-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal that gave the visitors a 10-7 lead.
Three plays later, the game changed for good. Collaros sat in the pocket looking for a receiver on a third-and-12 play, his heels near his own goal line. Irvin finally tracked down the elusive senior signal-caller, and Collaros’ leg bent awkwardly as the WVU defensive end simultaneously tackled and stripped the quarterback.
The damage came on two fronts: West Virginia’s Julian Miller tracked down the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown that made it 17-7, and Collaros had to be carted off and did not return to action with what was officially termed a lower leg injury. He watched the second half from the sidelines, walking with the aid of crutches.
"It was definitely difficult because that’s one of us," Pead said of the loss of Collaros. "He’s one of our brothers."
Legaux, a sophomore, filled in and made several plays, but UC’s offense clearly missed Collaros. Legaux completed 10 of 21 passes for 144 yards. He ran for another 77 yards on eight carries. Pead added another 113 rushing yards on his 19 attempts, including two touchdowns.
For WVU, Geno Smith was 29-of-42 passing for 372 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked five times. Austin (nine catches, 126 yards) and Bailey (six grabs, 104 yards and a score) both topped the century mark. The Mountaineers needed everything they got through the air after averaging only one yard per carry on 32 rushes.
West Virginia finds itself once again back in the thick of the conference championship race. It will have next week off before the Backyard Brawl against Pitt the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“I think we’re eager to get after it,” Geno Smith said. “To have a bye week is pretty good. You know, we get a chance to rest up and get some guys healthy who have been injured, and we also get a chance to focus two weeks’ worth of work towards a tough opponent in Pittsburgh.”