West Virginia's Bradley Starks beats Connecticut's Dwayne Gratz for a touchdown catch late in the third quarter.
MORGANTOWN - It was roughly 20 minutes after West Virginia had dispatched Connecticut Saturday afternoon, winning 43-16 at Mountaineer Field, and Dana Holgorsen was talking about how difficult this four-touchdown win was.It was hard to argue with him, at least to a point."It just seemed like everything was so hard out there today,'' West Virginia's first-year coach said. "You look at the final score and it was harder than that.''True. For about 21/2 quarters, West Virginia's Big East opener was like pulling teeth. To that point the Mountaineers had essentially watched UConn control the football, make field goals and keep WVU's offense in check. Eight minutes remained in the third quarter and somehow West Virginia led 10-9, but it was a chore.
Then the whole afternoon changed in a heartbeat. Well, a heartbeat and then a slow-motion lumber down a sideline.With Connecticut driving to take the lead and seemingly assured of doing so, quarterback Johnny McEntee ran a keeper through the left side of the line. He gained good yardage and the Huskies would have had second-and-5 inside the WVU 10.But at the end of the play, West Virginia quarterback Pat Miller stuck his helmet into McEntee and the ball squirted up. Linebacker Jewone Snow scooped it up, turned around, got his bearings and took off down the sideline. Eighty-three yards later WVU had the ball at the Huskies' 12-yard line.Nothing after that was hard at all.The Mountaineers scored 10 seconds later on the first of Geno Smith's three touchdown passes, they added a safety for good measure and before those eight minutes had elapsed and the quarter ended, WVU led 33-9. The Mountaineers wound up scoring 33 points in less than 14 minutes, and this one wound up being anything but hard.All because of one play."In college football those things happen and that turned the game,'' said Smith, whose own passing numbers did an about-face after that defensive play. "You could tell the momentum shift that happened.''Indeed, after struggling in the first half and leading 10-9 only because a UConn interception was wiped out by a penalty (opening the door for Dustin Garrison's 14-yard scoring run), West Virginia opened the second half no differently and was forced to punt after a personal-foul penalty put the offense in a hole."Everyone was like, 'Here we go again,''' Smith said. "But then the guy fumbles and Jewone runs it back and everyone had an extra boost of energy.''What happened after that was, quite frankly, what most had expected all along. West Virginia's offense dominated and the defense held.When all was said and done, Smith had thrown for 450 yards and four touchdowns, West Virginia had 541 yards of total offense and the defense had given up just 275 total yards. Connecticut didn't score an offensive touchdown, the third time in six games WVU's defense can boast of not allowing one.
Yet that one defensive gem ignited it all. For instance, before Snow's fumble return Smith was 18-of-31 passing for 211 yards and no touchdowns - OK, but not startling. After the fumble he was 9-of-14 for 239 yards and threw TD passes of 84 and 27 yards to Stedman Bailey, 12 yards to Tavon Austin and a spectacular 22-yarder to Brad Starks.Oh, and the defense had given up 238 yards to the Huskies. In the remaining 11/2 quarters UConn would add just 37 yards while allowing 301.And Miller, who started the whole thing with his hit, didn't even know what was happening."I didn't even know Snow had the ball until he was 30 yards down the field,'' the junior cornerback said. "I thought it was one of the safeties, like [Darwin] Cook or something.''Well, if it had been Cook, the offense probably wouldn't have had a chance to go out and jump-start itself because Cook would have scored. Almost anyone on the defense would have, in fact.But Snow, after getting out of the blocks well, slowed to a crawl just when it appeared he was in the clear. Eventually, Connecticut tight end Ryan Griffin chased him down at the 12-yard line.
"I was shocked,'' Snow said. "When I got that last block I thought I was going to score.''In truth, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound redshirt freshman middle linebacker, making only his second start, might not have scored if Connecticut had left the field. That's how much he slowed down.But by that time it didn't matter. If the damage wasn't already done, it was about to be."It was a game-changer,'' Snow said. "The momentum completely shifted on that play.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com