By the time the game ended and the fans who remained in the Milan Puskar Stadium stands were singing “Country Roads” after the program’s ninth-straight home win, the scoreboard and the statistics made it seem like a dominant day for WVU.
The defense held its opposition off the scoreboard entirely, the first time any West Virginia team had pulled that feat since a 38-0 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 9, 2005. It held the Chanticleers to only 186 yards of offense and allowed only two third-down conversions in 14 tries.
The offense gained 400 yards, achieving a near-perfect balance of 216 yards through the air and 184 on the ground. It scored touchdowns on three of its first four drives of the second half and only failed to continue that pace when head coach Bill Stewart saw fit to put in the reserves for the last 12:11 of the game.
The special teams were deserving of that adjective, with a solid day of punting from Gregg Pugnetti, much-improved coverage of the kickoffs of Corey Smith, and a perfect day of extra points and a field goal from Tyler Bitancurt.
But despite all that, the outcome was not always secure.
WVU went to the locker room at halftime holding a relatively tenuous 10-0 lead, as the offense failed to build what was an impressive opening drive, managing only a 21-yard field goal from Bitancurt in the last 21:55 of the half.
“I thought our offense misfired early,” Stewart said frankly.
That continued late into the half, as quarterback Geno Smith made a bad read and threw in the direction of a well-covered Tavon Austin on the first play of a Mountaineer drive. CCU safety Dominique Davenport had a read on the ball and easily picked it off before taking off down the sidelines for a 37-yard return.
It was one of very few mistakes from Smith on the day, as the true sophomore was 20-of-27 passing for 216 yards and two touchdowns in his first game as the regular starter under center at the college level.
“I don’t want to make excuses for Geno, but this was his first complete game, and he’s a sophomore,” said Stewart. “The pick was a bad break.”
That bad break gave Coastal Carolina an opportunity to draw even closer just before the intermission, as the visitors took possession at Mountaineers’ 21-yard line.
But Chanticleers quarterback Zach MacDowall returned the favor on the ensuing play. West Virginia cornerback Brandon Hogan made an athletic play to dive for a pass attempt in the end zone, and the senior snared it for a touchback, ending the threat and irreversibly changing momentum in the game.
“I really like the way our defense played and the way they adjusted,” said Stewart.
After the intermission, WVU quickly quelled any thoughts of an upset.
Robert Sands forced Coastal’s Adrian Sullivan to fumble the opening kickoff of the third quarter, and Darwin Cook recovered at the CCU 19-yard line. Three plays later, Smith found slot receiver Jock Sanders for a 17-yard scoring strike, giving the hosts a bit of breathing room at 17-0.
CCU drove into Mountaineer territory on its ensuing possession, but Justin Durham missed a 47-yard field goal short and wide left. That story would be repeated again on the Chanticleers’ next drive, when Durham pulled a 42-yard kick wide right to keep his team off the board.
West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin made an incredible play on his team’s next possession, catching a short pass from Smith in the middle of the field and turning it into a 33-yard gain with a simple stutter-step and a burst to the outside.
Fullback Ryan Clarke plunged in from one yard out just a few plays later, making it 24-0 and ending any thoughts Coastal might have had of keeping it close.
After a relatively quiet day, running back Noel Devine finally made his presence felt at the start of the fourth quarter, taking three straight carries and going for 12, 39 and four yards, respectively. That 4-yard tote was good for a touchdown, making it 31-0 and allowing Stewart to finally feel comfortable enough to bring in the backups.
A host of true freshmen, including quarterback Barry Brunetti, receiver Ivan McCartney, running back Trey Johnson, safety Ishmael Banks, safety Travis Bell, safety Mike Dorsey and linebacker Doug Rigg, saw action.
“I wanted to get them in there,” Stewart said. “I wanted to get [freshman quarterback] Jeremy [Johnson] in there. I wanted to see both of those young men play, but we couldn’t. We need to not turn the ball over so much.”
Those sorts of miscues in the first half kept the backups out of the game until the latter stages.
Things started well enough, as the Mountaineers took the opening kickoff and marched 73 yards in 16 plays, taking 8:05 off the clock on a drive that culminated in a 4-yard scoring pass from Smith to receiver J.D. Woods on fourth-and-goal.
That came after the offense had kept its drive alive by converting a trio of third-down plays, perhaps foreshadowing future struggles. WVU went three-and-out on its next two possessions.
After Bitancurt’s field goal and a Coastal punt, Smith hit Tavon Austin with a pass across the middle on a second-and-7 play from the Chanticleers’ 15-yard line. The sophomore scooted across the field and had found his way to the 2-yard line before Josh Norman forced a fumble. The ball rolled into the end zone before going out of bounds, giving the visitors possession at their own 20-yard line.
The ensuing Coastal Carolina punt set up the exchange of interceptions, but the Mountaineers did enough in the second half to secure an easy win.
For West Virginia, Devine had 111 yards on 23 carries to go with his one touchdown and one lost fumble. Sanders had eight receptions for 71 yards and one score, while Austin had 90 yards on his five grabs.
Chanticleers quarterback MacDowall was 13-of-26 for 119 yards through the air and was intercepted once. Running back Eric O’Neal struggled to find space, gaining only 33 yards on his 15 attempts.
As season-openers go, it was a relatively clean game. West Virginia was penalized only three times for 25 yards. Smith was not sacked. And the defense seemed to never have any major missed assignments.
“The most important thing is the fact that we played with reckless abandon,” said Stewart. “I asked the players to do that, and they bought into it. I liked the way they flew around.
“We have a long way to go though. Our quest is to get better each and every day.”