West Virginia's Shawne Alston (20) celebrates his go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown with teammate Tavon Austin.
CINCINNATI - To credit West Virginia's season-saving 24-21 win over No. 23 Cincinnati Saturday afternoon to special-teams play might be a reach.After all, the Mountaineers were still missing field goals and having them blocked, shanking punts left and right and having even most of their decent returns wiped out by penalties.Still, it was hard not to be among the 48,152 at Paul Brown Stadium and walk out feeling that anything but special teams play was the difference, at least not in the wake of the play that turned potential gloom and doom into a WVU celebration.After suffering through the highs and lows of a seemingly interminable game that included 14 WVU penalties, six replay reviews, three major shifts in momentum and a near-concession to overtime - "We had the discussion [about strategy],'' coach Dana Holgorsen said - the Mountaineers blocked a field goal on the final play of the game to preserve the win.
Combined with Pitt's 21-14 win over Louisville, the win put West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) right back into the discussion about the league championship and an automatic berth in a BCS bowl. Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1) still has the upper hand, but now WVU is in a four-way tie for second with Rutgers, Louisville and Pitt, all just a half game back. Connecticut, at 2-2, is also just a game back in the loss column.Holgorsen credited the win not as much to special teams as to effort, the theme he had preached all week. But perhaps that was to deflect from the fact that he wasn't sure whom to credit with the block."We were just in [the locker room] talking about who blocked it,'' he said. "We have no idea. Everybody's taking credit for it, even guys who weren't on the field. Shoot, I'll take credit for it.''The most likely hero seems to be safety Eain Smith, who was one of those who was happy to take credit for the block and had his supporters. Defensive end Julian Miller even said you could look at Smith's swollen left thumb and tell he was the one."No, I messed that up in practice. It has nothing to do with this,'' Smith said. "But I did block it. I shot through a gap and knew as soon as I did I had it.''No matter who was responsible, the play put a dramatic end to a game that needed no more drama but certainly could have used some continuity. There was absolutely none of that on either side.For West Virginia, there was an awful start - a three-and-out and a quick touchdown drive allowed to start the game - followed by a quick recovery when Geno Smith made his weekly big-play touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey to tie the game at 7. Then the game devolved into alternating periods of smooth sailing disrupted by those 14 penalties (two shy of the school record) and special-teams blunders. The Mountaineers had a goal-line stand and a defensive touchdown, but by the fourth quarter had handed all that momentum back.And for Cincinnati there was a hot start - 129 yards on the first eight plays of the game - before the bottom fell out on offense and then star quarterback Zach Collaros was injured and left the game. That seemed to be the end of things for the Bearcats when backup quarterback Munchie Legaux couldn't get anything going, but then he found his stride and Cincinnati seemed prime for its fourth comeback win in as many Big East games.Even when Shawne Alston scored at the end of a 74-yard drive with 8:52 to play to give WVU a 24-21 lead, it seemed almost inevitable. The Mountaineers had two possessions to run out the clock and couldn't. Cincinnati got the ball back with 2:01 to play, drove from its 30 to the WVU 14 in six plays, ran the clock to three seconds and lined up to tie the game on a 31-yard field goal by Tony Miliano.That's when Smith - or someone - blocked the kick and saved this from becoming a four-hour game. It also restored at least some faith in WVU's special teams."We keep working on it. We work on the same things every week,'' Holgorsen said. "There's nothing wrong with the schemes. It's about getting fired up and playing together as a team. We just kept working on it.''
After faulting his team's effort in losses to Syracuse and Louisville two of the last three weeks, Holgorsen couldn't stop raving about it Saturday."It's not as much about what we did or didn't do on offense,'' he said before repeating the same refrain regarding defense and special teams. "It's about how much energy we played with, which has kind of been the theme of the week.''Still, there were specific offensive and defensive accomplishments. On offense, quarterback Geno Smith completed 29-of-43 passes for 372 yards as Tavon Austin and Bailey combined for 15 catches and 230 yards. The Mountaineers couldn't run the ball at all most of the day (32 carries for 32 yards), but they also didn't make glaring mistakes, save for the inordinate number of procedure and holding penalties. WVU turned the ball over just once, that on a disputed fumble by Dustin Garrison that instigated one of the six replay reviews that annoyingly and repeatedly stopped the game.There were also some huge plays on defense. Keith Tandy had an interception, broke up a key third-down pass late and was the major force in stopping Collaros at the goal line in the first quarter that capped a goal-line stand despite two WVU penalties.Najee Goode had a monster game, although one of his biggest plays - he sacked Legaux, stripped the ball and then recovered it late in the game - was overturned on review. He was the one who sacked Collaros at his own goal line, knocking him out of the game and beginning a play in which Bruce Irvin stripped the ball and Miller pounced on it for a touchdown.In the end, though, Holgorsen might have been right about effort being the difference. In a game with so many stops and starts and swings of momentum, it would have been easy to lose focus. But unlike the losses to Syracuse and Louisville, the Mountaineers never did.
"I think it's just good karma,'' said Geno Smith. "We've worked so hard and didn't get down on ourselves. The things we've gone through this season have kind of toughened us up I guess.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com