Adversity? Unlike the lethargic play that characterized the third quarter of last week’s win at James Madison (which coaches, including Dana Holgorsen, sold as a backs-against-the-wall situation), this was a legitimate struggle.
The team’s high-flying offense was held in check for long stretches. With starting running back Shawne Alston playing only one snap due to a thigh bruise, the running game and the passing game suffered. The Mountaineers finished with only 25 rushing yards -- the program’s fewest since a 1996 loss to Syracuse.
Things weren’t that much better on the other side, either. The WVU defense struggled mightily to get off the field, repeatedly giving up conversion in third-and-long situations. The pass defense allowed Maryland’s true freshman QB, Perry Hills, to throw for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite all that, No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) had enough in the tank to handle the Terrapins, using a 34-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass (on a third-and-15 play) from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin to get a bit of breathing room in a 31-21 win at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“We’re still young in the season, so there is plenty to work on,” Holgorsen said in a bit of understatement following a sloppy, lethargic performance.
Austin was the star of the show, beating his home state school one more time -- and easily finishing with the team’s best offensive performance of the day in the process. The speedy receiver showed off his considerable skill-set, finishing with 179 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions.
But he was one of few bright spots on a day the offense actually struggled for the first time since the 2011 regular season finale against South Florida.
It was the Mountaineer defense that broke an early stalemate. Darwin Cook perfectly timed a safety blitz, knifing through the offensive line and hitting Hills before he could hand off to a running back. The ball popped free, and linebacker Doug Rigg scooped it up and ran 51 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-0.
Defensive Player of the Game
A 44-yard pass from Smith to Austin made it 14-0 -- completing a two-play, 78-yard scoring drive -- and it appeared West Virginia might cruise after all. But the Terps’ own speedy receiver, freshman Stefon Diggs, took a Hills pass 42 yards to make it 14-7 at the end of the first.
Already, Maryland had a bit of offensive rhythm. At the end of the first quarter, it had 109 total yards to WVU’s 98. The Mountaineers had only 10 offensive snaps in the quarter.
The Terrapins (2-2) tied things up early in the second quarter with a 12-yard scoring pass from Hills to Marcus Leak. Desperate to find some rushing offense, the Mountaineers sent last season’s starting running back, Dustin Garrison, into the lineup. Alston, who had a thigh bruise that severely limited him, also came in for a snap.
On the play Alston came in, Smith found a wide open Austin in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass. That play gave WVU a 24-14 lead at the half, and with the ball to start the third quarter, West Virginia again seemed poised to take control.
But the offense couldn’t capitalize, failing to score a point in the third quarter -- its first scoreless quarter since the first period of last year’s regular season finale at USF. The Mountaineers’ 363 total yards were the third-fewest in Holgorsen’s tenure as head coach.
“They’re a good team,” Holgorsen said of Maryland, which beat William & Mary 7-6 on opening weekend and lost to UConn last week. “Defensively, they’ve shown a bunch of improvement and have seven or eight seniors that have played a lot of football.”
Defensive Player of the Game
7 total tackles
1 forced fumble
1 fumble recovery
51-yard fumble return TD
As the fourth quarter began, it appeared the Terps would get back within a score, as a Hills pass to Leak converted a third-and-long into WVU territory. But just as Leak was going to the ground, Cook forced a fumble that was was recovered by Terence Garvin.
Finally, the offense took advantage, as Smith and Austin hooked up again for a 34-yard score, ending a 67-yard scoring drive and making it 31-14 with only 8:18 to go. Maryland tacked on a late touchdown from Diggs, but it was too late to make a serious comeback.
“In all my years of coaching, I’ve never seen a stat line as even as this,” Holgorsen said. “It’s pretty much even across the board. The one exception is turnovers, and we got a couple of turnovers, obviously.”
Indeed, if not for WVU’s 3-0 edge in takeaways, this game could have been much more interesting down the stretch. Rigg’s scoop-and-score ended a drive when Maryland was already in field goal range. Ditto for Garvin’s fumble recovery. A missed field goal near the end of the first half also cost the Terps points.
“I’m disappointed we made some of the errors that we made that didn’t allow us to have an opportunity to win towards the end of the game,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “One of the things we have to do is we just have to do a better job of securing the ball offensively and make sure we cut down on the penalties and sacks.”