Despite miscues, WVU shows fire
CINCINNATI - Throughout Saturday's Big East game between West Virginia and Cincinnati, those at the audio controls of Paul Brown Stadium played a multitude of White Stripes songs.
Which was perfect, because WVU's 24-21 victory was certainly a horse of a different stripe.
The capper, Mountaineer free safety Eain Smith's block of a UC field goal attempt, was as perfect as the music selection. Nothing but something out of the ordinary would have sufficed.
A good game? Uh, no. Rick Perry would have felt at home with the number of mental mistakes displayed - by all involved. The officials appeared inept. The coaches made questionable decisions, especially in the area of timeouts. At times the players couldn't get out of their own way, sometimes literally.
West Virginia was whistled for an amazing 14 penalties. There were shanked punts and kickoff gaffes. There were missed field goals. There were four fumbles (two lost) and an interception. There were drops and overthrows. There were enough stoppages of play to satisfy ABC (which televised this one), ESPN and CBS combined.
But it was a close game, and it was a game West Virginia absolutely needed to win. Credit the Mountaineers that they did. At least they are still breathing in the Big East title race at 3-2 in conference play and 7-3 overall.
West Virginia did two things that went a long way in the victory. First, it won the turnover battle. WVU entered the game tied for 60th nationally in turnover margin. If you wonder how Cincinnati made such a fall from being the 2009 Big East champ, well, that's how. It turned the ball over in Butch Jones' first year more than it gained it.
Second, West Virginia played with more enthusiasm and verve than Cincy. Last week, in the Mountaineers' loss to Louisville, I pointed to that as an area of concern. This week, WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen did as well.
"Talked about that," Holgorsen said. "Got to stay up."
"That's all [Holgorsen] talked about all week was energy and staying up on the sideline," said Mountaineer receiver Stedman Bailey, who had six catches for 104 yards and a score. "I think we did that today."
It helped overcome a myriad of WVU mental mistakes. In the first half alone, I counted 14 mental slips - including two by the coaches - and that's not counting sacks, plays beaten on, etc. Nine were penalties that accounted for 65 yards.
Yet the Mountaineers were going for it on Saturday. On a play that turned the game toward WVU, the two factors that most helped the Mountaineers collided. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros went back to pass on third-and-12 from his team's own 15-yard line. WVU linebacker Najee Goode gave chase and he and Bruce Irvin hit the QB. The ball popped out and Julian Miller recovered in the end zone, moving the Mountaineer lead from 10-7 to 17-7. So there was the effort and aforementioned necessary turnover.
But the reaction along the sideline showed Holgorsen's weeklong sermon paid off.
"We almost got a penalty for the sideline rushing," said Mountaineer center Joe Madsen. "The energy was awesome. You always want that. [Ryan] Clarke and those guys jumping up on the sideline ... it just brings a whole new level to our game."
It lifts a WVU team that has more talent than any other in the Big East to the level on which it can play.
"Play with energy and excitement," Holgorsen said. "That's the only way you can win."
He added that his team was "learning how to play as a team," meaning the offense can pick up the defense when it's sagging, and vice-versa.
There was apparently some soul searching last week.
"I looked directly at the Syracuse game," said WVU quarterback Geno Smith, who completed 29-of-43 passes for 372 yards and a score on Saturday. "I looked at the film. I wasn't being the leader I needed to be."
Give the kid credit for being a stand-up man.
"We put ourselves in this hole," he said, referring to the Big East standings. "We can't make any excuses. But today we learned we can overcome adversity."
Like the many penalties. Like the five sacks allowed. Like the puny 32 rushing yards on 32 attempts.
Perhaps appropriately, both teams finished with exactly 404 yards of total offense. Cincinnati simply made one more mistake - allowing a gap for Smith to shoot and block the field goal attempt - and WVU made one more play of effort. ("I just shot the gap, put my hands up and blocked the kick," Smith said.)
Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was asked to describe the game.
"It's just crazy the way the game went," he said after a chuckle. "When Zach [Collaros] got hurt, that changed the game. We had an opportunity in the third quarter where we had them pinned up and let the quarterback [Munchie Legaux] go 50, 60 yards. We didn't do what we were supposed to do. A kid makes a mistake. That flipped the field and is what got us in trouble in the second half. But to the kids' credit, they hung in there. It wasn't pretty, but we ended up with the win."
Indeed, West Virginia overcame the 65-yard Legaux run, a couple injuries and a couple moves. Starting strong safety Terence Garvin and backup cornerback Brantwon Bowser were out with head injuries. Brodrick Jenkins played most of the game in place of cornerback Pat Miller.
The biggest difference, however, was winning the battle of turnovers by 2-1 and displaying that fire.
On Saturday, against a team in first place, a place most thought WVU would be at this point, the Mountaineers earned their stripes.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.