Fourth-down gambles paid off for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN - As it turns out, West Virginia's 41-31 win over Rutgers in the snow and cold Saturday hinged on two fourth-down gambles.
The one by the Mountaineers paid off. The bigger one by the Scarlet Knights did not.
Of course, that's the way it usually goes in a series that perhaps ended on Saturday with West Virginia's 17th consecutive win over Rutgers. Nothing the Scarlet Knights ever do seems to work out against the Mountaineers.
The gamble by Rutgers came on the first series of the fourth quarter with the Knights still leading 31-28. They had driven from their 30 to the WVU 11 in fairly easy fashion, not having faced a third down until the drive stalled.
But instead of going for a field goal that would have put RU up by six points, coach Greg Schiano called for a fake.
"I thought it was [the right call],'' Schiano said afterward.
It may have been, but it didn't work, even though the play was executed almost flawlessly. Holder Patrick Kivlehan took the snap and fired a beautiful pass into the end zone toward Brandon Coleman. It was right in Coleman's hands, too, until safety Darwin Cook, playing the receiver and not the ball, drilled the 6-foot-6, 220-pound redshirt freshman just as the ball arrived.
Coleman dropped it.
"It was an opportunity for us to be successful and I didn't execute,'' said Coleman. "I let the ball come to me. I should have gone and got it.''
"That was good,'' West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "I think it gave our guys a little bit of life.''
The Rutgers failure led directly to West Virginia's fourth-down success, not to mention to WVU's win. Taking the ball at the 11, the Mountaineers put together their only real sustained drive of the day. Ten plays and 88 yards later, WVU found itself at the Rutgers 1 needing a field goal to tie with just over six minutes to play.
Coach Dana Holgorsen never really hesitated.
"When you're playing well on defense, we don't get it and they're [Rutgers] backed up inside their 4-yard line,'' Holgorsen later offered. "You can use that to your advantage defensively.''
And offensively. West Virginia went straight to the line and quarterback Geno Smith relayed the play call, a play-action fake and a short dump pass over the middle to slot receiver Tyler Urban. With so much of the Rutgers defense crowded at the line to stop a team from the 1-yard line, it could easily have worked.
"But they did a good job,'' Smith said of the Rutgers defense. "They manned it up [not only against Urban, but every other potential target] and it was just me and the safety.''
Now that's not something that happens a lot. Smith has been WVU's starter for nearly two full years and he's run the ball plenty, although not this season. Yet he had never scored a rushing touchdown. He had to beat Rutgers safety Kevin Snyder in the open field.
He did. He put on a little head fake and ran toward the front corner of the end zone and had the angle all the way. He was hit hard as he lunged head-first across the goal line, but scored. Instead of being tied had they settled for the field goal, the Mountaineers led. They put it away with another touchdown a few minutes later.
Smith was just glad he had the chance to make any kind of fourth-down play, but he wasn't surprised.
"Fourth-and-one, game on the line, we're going to score. And the coaches know that,'' Smith said. "They're going to tell us when we're wrong and criticize us and critique our play, but when the game is on the line they also have the faith that we can get it done.''
BRIEFLY: The road gets no easier for West Virginia this week. At noon on Saturday, Louisville comes to Mountaineer Field on the heels of wins over the same two teams WVU just played. On Saturday the Cardinals pounded Syracuse, winning 27-10 over a team that had just pounded the Mountaineers.
"What is it, midnight?'' Holgorsen asked. "It feels like it's midnight.''
The timeout was finally called with one second to go, but holder Matt Molinari dropped the snap on what would have been a 36-yard Tyler Bitancurt field-goal attempt.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.