West Virginia (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) registered 390 yards and 35 points in the first half, racing out to an insurmountable lead behind the sterling play of senior quarterback Geno Smith, senior receiver Tavon Austin, senior running back Shawne Alston and junior receiver Stedman Bailey.
All but one of those players will exhaust their eligibility when WVU completes its bowl game -- a report earlier Saturday from WVMetroNews.com indicated the team’s likely destination is the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx -- and Bailey may opt to take an early shot at the NFL himself.
That raises questions about the future of the Mountaineer offense. But on Saturday, the present was exciting enough for a crowd of 51,112 to make that nothing more than a distant worry.
“We talked all week about our motivation for this game, and we obviously put a lot of that on our 21 seniors,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “But we also wanted to finish strong. I thought we had a chance to play our best ball on all three sides of the ball, and I think we did that ... They had a tremendous amount of fun out there.”
Offensive Player of the Game
This was the WVU offense that was on display early this season. Smith showed the form that made him a prohibitive frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy in late September, completing 23 of 24 passes for 407 yards and three touchdowns. None of his passes hit the turf, as his lone incomplete pass was intercepted.
In the process, Smith set a school record for consecutive completions with 21 in a row -- breaking the previous mark, 14, set earlier this year against Baylor. He tied the NCAA record for completion percentage in a game with at least 20 attempts at 95.8 percent, matching a mark set by Tennessee’s Tee Martin against South Carolina in 1998.
When it was over, he ran to the WVU student section, walked up the stairs and sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” arm-in-arm with some of his fellow students. He smiled broadly throughout.
“To throw for over 400 yards and to not throw an incompletion is pretty good,” Holgorsen said. “Technically, his one incompletion was an interception. But the ball didn’t hit the ground all day, which is pretty good.”
Smith had plenty of help.
All four running backs who earned carries averaged 4.0 yards per carry or better -- and three averaged 6.4 or more. Austin and Bailey both topped 100 receiving yards. Bailey posted 159 yards on 11 catches, including two touchdown grabs. Austin had 110 receiving yards on four receptions and added 77 rushing yards on 12 carries.
All of them exited as a group in the midst of a WVU drive midway through the fourth quarter, as coaches gave Smith enough snaps to top the 400-yard mark before sending the group to the sidelines.
Defensive Player of the Game
7 total tackles
0.5 tackles for loss
1 forced fumble
1 pass breakup
“As long as we had the chance to go out and play, we were going to give it our all,” Smith said. “That’s what this state represents. It’s a blue-collar state built on hard work, and we wanted to make sure we represented that to the fullest.”
Kansas (1-11, 0-9 Big 12) simply had no answer. It tried three different quarterbacks to no avail, as the game was already over by halftime. By then, WVU had built a 35-7 lead and the only question that remained was the final margin.
“My concern was us,” Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis said. “I can’t worry about West Virginia. They obviously have a great quarterback and dynamic players on offense and great skill position players that exposed us today. I only worry about how we play, and we didn’t play very well.”
The Mountaineers’ beleaguered defense shut down the KU offense, allowing only 274 yards and 10 points -- both of which were the best marks of the season for WVU’s defense.
Kansas tried to pass early, but QB Dayne Crist completed only 1 of 5 passes for 41 yards and threw a costly early interception. When that failed, it went to its typical option attack, but didn’t fare much better, gaining only 3.5 yards per rush for the game.
“They’ve been improving. They’re getting better at it,” Holgorsen said of his defense. “Since that bye week, I think we’ve gotten better against some very good offensive teams. They’ve allowed some points, and I understand that. But they never gave up. They came to work each week looking to get better.”