As holder Mike Molinari (48) chases in vain, Louisville's Andrew Johnson returns a blocked field goal 82 yards in the third quarter, giving the Cardinals a 31-21 lead.
MORGANTOWN - Every time it seems like West Virginia's football team is ready to take a step forward, an old deficiency rears its ugly head and slaps the Mountaineers back.
On Saturday it was special teams and turnovers, which were the difference in a 38-35 loss at home to Louisville.
Remember the punting woes from earlier this season and the field goal issues that date back more than a year? They're back. And the nasty habit of dropping the football at the worst possible times? That returned, too.
Yes, WVU's defense had its moments of lapse. Louisville hadn't scored more than 25 points all season, but the Cardinals had 24 before the end of the third quarter.
But that wouldn't have mattered had it not been for the other mistakes.
"This one wasn't very hard to figure out,'' first-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "You lose the turnover battle and go 0-for-2 on field goals and that gets you beat.''
It was a crushing setback for the Mountaineers, who came into the game ranked No. 24 and solidly in control of their own destiny in the race for the Big East title and a BCS bowl berth. Now WVU (6-3, 2-2 Big East) is on the outside looking in at a still-muddled race for the league title.
Louisville (5-4, 2-2), meanwhile, continued its midseason surge, winning for the third time in a row after victories against Rutgers and Syracuse.
The difference in this one? Well, from West Virginia's perspective, everyone gets a share of the blame, even an offense that generated another 500-yard performance (533 total yards, 410 passing) and 35 points. But when the game was in the balance to start the second half tied 21-21, WVU's first five possessions resulted in two fumbles, two missed field goals and a turnover on downs.
It was one of those missed field goals, though, that was the killer.
Trailing 24-21 as the third quarter turned into the fourth, West Virginia lined up for what seemed like a chip-shot, 23-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt to tie the game. It came at the end of a drive that began on WVU's 21-yard line and included a 46-yard catch and run by Stedman Bailey.
But Louisville's Adrian Bushell came untouched from the edge and cleanly blocked Bitancurt's attempt almost before it left his foot. The ball bounced cleanly to the side and into the arms of freshman Andrew Johnson, who ran 82 yards for a touchdown.
Suddenly, instead of a 24-all tie, Louisville led 31-21 and the Mountaineers never caught up.
"It's a 10-point swing,'' Holgorsen said. "It's not hard to look at the final score and figure out what a 10-point swing means.''
Had that been West Virginia's only issue, though, it could have been overcome. It wasn't.Punter Mike Molinari, who got the job because of Corey Smith's penchant for shanking the ball out of bounds, did exactly that twice against Louisville. Both came near midfield and ruined chances to pin the Cardinals deep. The second, just before halftime, set up Louisville for a quick 56-yard touchdown drive that tied the score at 21 and completely swung the momentum.Bitancurt, who was 12-for-13 this season on field goal attempts and had not had one blocked - he was 10-for-17 with four blocks last season and also struggled in spring and fall camps - not only had the crucial kick blocked, he simply pulled another chip shot from 32 yards wide to the left. That would have given WVU a 24-21 lead early in the third quarter.And then there were the turnovers. There were three in the game, and none worked out for the Mountaineers, even the one they gained.
That was on a Najee Goode interception two plays into the second half. Goode returned the ball to the Louisville 5-yard line, but a penalty on the return pushed it back 35 yards to the 40. When the offense couldn't take advantage, Bitancurt missed his first field goal.
"We had a chance to score on a turnover and we push a guy in the back,'' said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. "You just can't do those kinds of things in a tight game.''
Louisville also got a 39-yard Chris Philpott field goal to go up 24-21 after WVU tailback Andrew Buie fumbled and Louisville recovered at the Mountaineer 15. The Cards scored despite losing 7 yards on three plays after the turnover.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who completed 31-of-44 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns, for the second week in a row simply dropped the ball while in the pocket. That was after West Virginia had recovered from the blocked field goal and immediately driven to the Louisville 28.
Still, West Virginia had more than a few opportunities to erase all those mistakes. But after the offense drove 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-28 with nine minutes to play, the defense couldn't make a stop. Louisville converted two third downs and a fourth down during a drive that ate up 7:03 and was capped by a 3-yard Dominique Brown touchdown run to make it 38-28 with 1:50 to go.
West Virginia then quickly drove 65 yards to score on a Smith-to-Bailey 1-yard pass with 42 seconds to play, but Louisville recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org