Punked in prime time
MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia's prime time opportunity Saturday night revealed the Mountaineers for what perhaps they are at this point in their development.
Not ready for prime time.
While West Virginia fought valiantly at times, rolled up staggering offensive numbers and was within a single score of the lead as the fourth quarter approached, No. 2 LSU still managed to make the biggest plays when they mattered most.
All that, combined with four critical turnovers and atrocious special teams play, resulted in a 47-21 loss that will drop the No. 16 Mountaineers (3-1) down or completely out of the Top 25.
The loss continued a tradition of futility by the Mountaineers against the nation's highest-ranked teams. West Virginia is now 0-16 against teams ranked either first or second in the Associated Press poll, dating back to a 1946 loss to Army.
"A couple of times I thought we had momentum,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after his first defeat as a head coach. "But you can't beat a team with plays like that.''
The plays Holgorsen lamented most were turnovers. West Virginia rolled up a stunning 533 yards against an LSU defense that came into the game not only with a reputation as one of the nation's best, but the stats to back it up. Those 533 yards were 325 more than the Tigers' surrendered on average in their first three games.
But two interceptions and two fumbles wiped out so many opportunities. They also led directly to three LSU touchdowns.
A crowd of 62,056, though, was kept interested through three quarters. While West Virginia trailed big at halftime -- 27-7 -- and wound up losing big, as the third quarter drew to a close the Mountaineers trailed just 27-21. They had scored twice to make the game interesting once again and their defense was playing well.
But then LSU's Morris Claiborne returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score and the Mountaineers never recovered.
"That hurt,'' left tackle Don Barclay said of the touchdown return, which took every bit of wind out of the Mountaineers' sails. "We were pretty pumped up cutting [the deficit] from 20 points to six. But there's nothing we can do about that as an offense.''
Indeed, West Virginia's loss was not for the absence of a productive offense. In fact, many of the numbers West Virginia posted were historic, primarily from quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Smith would finish the game 38-for-65 for 463 yards -- all school records -- and West Virginia gained those 533 total yards. That was against an LSU defense that ranked sixth in the nation in total defense and 19th in passing defense.
"Yeah, but I'd trade all those for a win,'' Smith said. "I wouldn't care if I passed for zero yards if we win.''
Austin, who a week ago had 11 catches for 122 yards at Maryland, was even better against the Tigers -- 11 more catches for 187 yards. Bailey caught eight passes for 115 yards, his second straight 100-yard performance.
LSU gained 366 yards and quarterback Jarrett Lee completed 16 of 28 passes for 180 yards. But it was perhaps the Tigers ground game -- 186 yards and three touchdowns -- that hurt West Virginia the most.
Still, with just over a quarter to play, this one was still interesting, to say the least.
After trailing 27-7 after a turnover- and mistake-filled first half, West Virginia almost immediately showed signs of life and jumped right back into the game.
After giving up an LSU drive to start the second half but dodging a bullet when Rueben Randle dropped an easy touchdown pass and Drew Alleman pulled a 30-yard field goal, Smith and Austin really began clicking.
First West Virginia went 80 yards in six plays, the biggest being the little flip pass Smith tosses to an in-motion Austin right at the snap. Austin turned that into a 38-yard gain and five plays later Smith hit a wide-open Tyler Urban for a 12-yard touchdown to make it 27-14.
Two series later, Smith and Austin began another drive with a huge play -- a 72-yard pass down the middle with the Mountaineers on their own 10. This time it was freshman tailback Dustin Garrison who finished off the drive, first converting third-and-12 with a 19-yard run with a screen pass, then scoring from the 1 to cut the margin to 27-21.
But that's when Claiborne stuck a knife in all that enthusiasm and let the air out.
On the ensuing kickoff he took the ball just in front of his goal line, slipped a tackle by Avery Williams at about the 20, then somehow got out of another mass of bodies along the sideline at about the 40. From there he ran untouched to the end zone, a 99-yard return that pushed the margin back to 34-21.
"The whole season coach Holgorsen talks about how important special teams are,'' said Garrison, who had 46 rushing yards and caught four passes for 26 yards. "It's hard to win a game when the special teams aren't as good as they can be.''
When West Virginia then went for a fourth-and-3 near midfield and failed, the Tigers drove 57 yards and scored an insurance touchdown on a 15-yard run by Michael Ford that made it 40-21. The Tigers added another touchdown late in the game to wrap it up.
In the first half, LSU scored early by converting two third-and-long situations and Lee threaded a bullet into Randle in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead. It didn't hurt, either, that LSU had to go just 58 yards for the score after Corey Smith shanked a 14-yard punt -- yet another special teams problem that plagued WVU all night.
West Virginia's defense was then put into some nasty situations when the offense turned the ball over two straight times in the first quarter -- a fumble by Brad Starks after a catch and an interception of a pass that ricocheted off of Austin -- and gave LSU the ball at the 50 both times. The defense held the first time and forced a punt, but the second time LSU went 50 yards in seven quick plays and made it 13-0 on Ford's 22-yard run. The PAT was botched.
West Virginia got things going at the start of the second quarter when Ivan McCartney caught a 13-yard pass to convert third-and-13. With Austin doing most of the damage on the receiving end, WVU marched steadily down the field and Bailey capped the drive when he caught a sideline curl from Smith. Claiborne came up and tried to make the tackle, but Bailey juked him and raced into the end zone to finish a 20-yard play. That closed the gap to 13-7.
LSU would get the score back later in the second quarter, though, when the WVU defense was burned again. On a third-and-one near midfield, the Mountaineers bit on a play-action fake and Lee found a wide-open Beckham across the middle. Beckham easily outran safety Terence Garvin to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
Just as it appeared West Virginia might get out of the half with just that deficit, though, LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu blitzed on a third-and-long with 37 seconds left in the half, batted a Smith pass and caught it on the run. He returned it 19 yards to the 1-yard line and two plays later Lee hit tight end Chase Clement for a touchdown to make it 27-7.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.