WVU punter bounces back with a boom (or four)
MORGANTOWN - It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has paid more than cursory attention to the ebb and flow of West Virginia's football fortunes this season that the tide in the Mountaineers' biggest game of the season - last Friday's Backyard Brawl win over Pitt - changed on a punt, of all things.
It is only slightly less shocking that the punt came from the foot of one Corey Smith, who lost his job nearly two months ago yet was never all that far from regaining it, given the sporadic nature of he kicks offered by his replacement, Mike Molinari.
What is nearly unfathomable, however, is that the game was altered not by an atrocious punt but by a magnificent one. And not just one, but four.
After watching so many games turn - or at least bog down - because of fluttering punts that often traveled no more than a few yards before sailing out of bounds, Friday's 21-20 win over Pitt would not have been possible were it not for Smith. He entered the game early in the second quarter - that it was for WVU's fifth punt of the night already says something about how important punting would be - and before the night was over would kick the ball four times for 57, 50, 62 and 60 yards.
"He played a big part in it,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said of Smith. "You have to give the defense a whole bunch of credit, but you can't win on one side. You need special teams to contribute and you need offense to contribute, and all three sides did.''
That West Virginia won a game because its special teams play was solid is not a first this season, but it has been rare. Tyler Bitancurt has had his moments as a place-kicker - he made 12 of his first 13 field goal attempts - and there have been big plays in both punt and kickoff returns (Tavon Austin ranks fourth nationally in punt returns and ran a kickoff back for a touchdown). There was the blocked field goal that won the game at Cincinnati.
There has even been the occasional momentum-shifting punt in WVU's favor. Remember Molinari's debut, when he averaged 43 yards, angled one out of bounds at the 2-yard line, pinned Connecticut inside its 20 three times and had two punts that were downed inside the 15 wiped out by penalties?
You don't remember that? Oh, well, it was a while ago.
In the interim things have been generally miserable in the kicking game, save for that blocked field goal. Bitancurt has missed four of his last five field goal tries - he's made just one in the last four games - and two extra points. Allowing long kickoff returns has been an on-and-off issue since LSU turned the momentum with a touchdown runback. Austin has been so frustratingly inconsistent in simply getting to and catching punts that he was finally replaced by Devon Brown last week. And, of course, West Virginia can't wrap up a BCS bowl berth Thursday night with a win at South Florida for one reason that rises above all others like a sore thumb - the blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown by Louisville.
Then there is the punting. Smith began losing his grip on the job because against LSU he boomed two long punts and shanked two others out of bounds for less than 15 yards. When he was no better a week later against Bowling Green - his only punt that day traveled all of 14 yards - Holgorsen handed the job to Molinari, who started out terrific and then began shanking punts just like Smith before him.
When Molinari's first four punts against Pitt were awful (a short one that managed to roll, one into the end zone for a 25-yard net, a 22-yard shank out of bounds and then a 27-yarder), Holgorsen finally gave up and went back to Smith.
"It's funny. He asked me Wednesday before the game, 'Are you ever going to let me do this again,''' Holgorsen said of Smith. "I said, 'Yeah, you'd better be ready.'''
Smith's reaction to getting the call again?
"What happens happens,'' Smith said. "I trust my leg. I've done it a million times. It's not gone well for me [at times], but I had to block that out of my mind and just go do my thing.''
It's hard to overstate the importance of what Smith did. His first punt, combined with a penalty against Pitt, sent the ball from West Virginia's 25 to the Pitt 10. The Panthers then went three-and-out and two plays later the Mountaineers scored.
Smith's second punt was a 50-yarder and Pitt went four-and-out. His third was 62 yards and was downed at the Pitt 2. And then his final kick came with WVU inside its own 15, nursing a one-point lead and just two minutes remaining. Even an average 40-yarder would have put the Panthers a couple of first downs away from field goal range.
He boomed another 60-yarder and Pitt started from its own 34. But even more significantly, that punt - as well as each one before it - energized not only the sellout crowd but also the Mountaineers themselves.
"He was my MVP,'' said quarterback Geno Smith.
For his part, Corey Smith said he would like the think that he facilitated some of the emotion and the win itself, which is unusual for a punter. But after being partially sidelined all those weeks - he still handled most of the kickoffs, although that was taken away too for a time - he had all that energy stored up.
But now comes the real test. Both Smith and Molinari have had their shining moments, only to fall back. Holgorsen made reference just this week to Smith's mindset when he said, "He could have folded his tent six or seven weeks ago.''
Now the Mountaineers have one regular-season game remaining, Thursday night at South Florida, with a Big East title on the line. Corey Smith knows he can't afford any more of those slips.
"I just have to make sure I'm consistent next time. That's the biggest key,'' he said. "If I don't do anything [against South Florida] then it's kind of irrelevant.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.