It took a comeback to pull off the victory, after the Mountaineers went into the locker room trailing by 10 to the Tribe, which finished 2-9 last year.
“When we fell behind, we had to do what we needed to do to get back into the game, and I felt like we did that,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen.
Junior Paul Millard started at quarterback for West Virginia and played all but two drives for the Mountaineers. He finished 19-of-25 for 237 yards and a touchdown in his first career start. Holgorsen said he thought Millard managed the game well and felt more comfortable with him in the lineup over Florida State transfer Clint Trickett.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was just excited for the opportunity,” Millard said. “I just wanted to come out and take advantage of the opportunity ... I’m proud of the guys and the way we came back.”
Down seven in the third quarter, Millard threw his second deep ball of the afternoon and hit receiver Ronald Carswell, who flew behind two W&M defenders to catch the pass and run into the end zone for the 69-yard score to tie the game at 17-17.
Later in the fourth quarter, Millard led a game-winning drive that gave the Mountaineers their first lead since the first quarter. The decisive drive – dominated by the running game – was capped off by a two-yard rushing touchdown by freshman Wendell Smallwood to give the Mountaineers a 24-17 lead with 3:22 to play.
“The running game was working, and the tempo was getting to them, so we just kept rolling with [the running game],” Smallwood said. “
Safety Darwin Cook finished off the Tribe with an interception.
WVU’s offense, outside of Millard, was led by running back Charles Sims. The Houston transfer rushed for 120 yards on 23 attempts. He scored the first touchdown of the game for the Mountaineers on the first possession. WVU used all four of its running backs and finished with 172 yards on the ground.
“Whatever we’re good at is what we’re going to do. It doesn’t matter if we win by one of 40. It doesn’t matter if we pass 50 times or run 50 times,” Holgorsen said.
Freshman receiver Daikel Shorts finished with a team-high seven receptions. He had 63 receiving yards. Six different players caught passes.
Defensively, outside of the second quarter, WVU played a strong game compared to a year ago. It was beat deep twice by William & Mary receiver Tre McBride, but other than that, it kept the Tribe in check. It recorded 309 yards.
“It’s the same scheme and players but a different mentality,” Holgorsen said. “Our guys are going to give up plays … We’ve got to be able to overcome that and keep playing, and we did a good job of that today.”
The first quarter was a bright spot for WVU, which used a quick-paced offense to score a touchdown on its first drive led by Millard. However, the Mountaineers wouldn’t score another point in the half.
Millard’s first incompletion didn’t come until the 5:53 mark of the first half on a ball he intentionally threw out of bounds. It set up a 55-yard field goal attempt by kicker Josh Lambert, which fell short and wide left. It went down hill from there.
Following the missed field goal, WVU starting cornerback Ishmael Banks was beat over the top by McBride for 40 yards to set up a first-and-goal. Three plays later, enthusiasm in the stadium was tempered, as the Tribe tied the game at 7-7 on a short touchdown pass.
The second quarter was a struggle for West Virginia. The offense gained just one yard on 10 plays and didn’t complete a pass.
Trickett came into the game for the first time with 8:49 to go, but on his two drives he didn’t complete a pass, almost threw an interception and was sacked.
With less than two minutes left in the half, Holgorsen elected to go with Millard. However, he fumbled after being pressured and tackled, and William & Mary took over at the WVU 34-yard line. The Tribe booted in a 29-yard field goal to take a 17-7 halftime lead.
WVU opened up the second half with a more than six-minute drive, which was capped by a 22-yard field goal from Lambert to make it a one-possession game at 17-10. Millard led the drive.
Millard’s touchdown to Carswell followed that.
The teams went back and forth in the fourth quarter before the decisive drive in the fourth quarter led by Millard and the running game.
WVU was led defensively by linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who finished with seven tackles. Cook and defensive tackle Shaq Rowell had six each. Linebacker Doug Rigg had the Mountaineers’ only sack.
“In the first half, we were a little bit nervous. We busted some assignments, but you have to give William & Mary credit,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “Once we got our feet on the ground in the second half, you could tell our kids were much more comfortable.”
Punter Nick O’Toole was a pleasant surprise for the Mountaineers.
“I’ve done the same kid everyday for the last couple of years, so I figured I might as well keep doing that,” O’Toole said. “Once I got into the game, it was all muscle memory.”