By the time West Virginia's football team had survived another nail-biter for its third win in a row to close the regular season Thursday night in Tampa, Fla., all Jeff Casteel could do was breathe a sigh of relief."Give our guys credit,'' WVU's defensive coordinator said. "They hung in there and made enough plays - and made enough plays at crucial times - and won the game.''It was quite an ordeal, though.By the time the Mountaineers had finished off a 30-27 win over South Florida, no one was happier than Casteel's defense that Tyler Bitancurt's last-play, 28-yard field goal had won the game and avoided overtime. West Virginia had little left in its tank on either side of the ball by then, but it was especially true for the defense.At one point during the second half - thanks to a combination of offensive inefficiency, turnovers, a failure to get off the field on third downs and even a positive in Tavon Austin's kickoff return for a touchdown - WVU's defense was on the field for 41 of 49 plays from scrimmage.Oh, and toss in the fact that it was the second game in less than a week, the Mountaineers having beaten Pitt six days prior."We're not playing a lot [of players] to begin with and when they're out there that long they're going to wear down,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said after the game. "It's been a long last three games. And it's been a long six days. We've had eight quarters of football in the last six days and those guys have given everything they've got. Our team plays with a bunch of effort, so that wears on you.''
When all was said and done, South Florida had gained 397 yards and run 83 plays, 17 more than WVU. Considering that the Mountaineers had the ball for 21 of the final 25 plays, consider that up to that point the total plays run in the game favored USF by a whopping 79-45."It wore on us a little bit and we had guys that got hurt,'' said linebacker Najee Goode, who saved the defense - and the game - when he stripped USF quarterback B.J. Daniels of the ball with three minutes to play, setting up the winning field goal drive. "The offense couldn't sustain drives and on defense we got them to third down but they were making plays. They've got athletes who can make plays.''Even one of the best plays the Mountaineers made all night ultimately victimized the defense. Casteel's group had been on the field for 10 straight plays at the start of the second half after the offense turned it over on a Devon Brown fumble inside the USF 10. That ended with the defense holding the Bulls to a field goal to make the score 13-10.But then Tavon Austin returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, which was great for the scoreboard but awful for the Mountaineer defense, which then had to go right back out. And although the group held USF to just one first down and forced a punt, Geno Smith threw an interception three plays later and the defense had to punch in again.
Then it got even worse, if that's possible. The defense held USF to another field goal after the offense turned it over on its own 32, but it took 13 snaps to do it. The Bulls actually had first-and-goal at both the 5 and the 2 (the second after a Keith Tandy pass interference call) and couldn't score a touchdown.And then finally WVU's offense made just one first down on its next possession before punting and the defense went back at it. This time the Mountaineers couldn't keep USF out of the end zone, but it took the Bulls 15 plays to get there.All right, ready to count that all up? OK. From the 13:38 mark of the third quarter, after the Brown fumble that ended a drive that could have made the score 20-7, the WVU offense ran all of eight plays in the next 18 minutes and 49 seconds of game clock. Two of those were interceptions, including the one JaQuez Jenkins returned for a touchdown to give South Florida a 27-20 lead with 9:49 to play. The other six plays included two incomplete passes and gains of 0, 5, 7 and 12 yards.Meanwhile, over that same 18:49 in which WVU ran eight plays, South Florida ran 41. The Mountaineers played commendably for being asked to go out so often, but by the end they were gassed. B.J. Lageman was playing on the defensive line. Mike Moro was in the secondary. These are not guys who have played much in the regular defense, but at that point they were better than their completely exhausted superiors on the depth chart.
And still WVU's defense survived. South Florida was held well below its season average of 436 yards. While the Bulls scored 27 points, 10 were directly due to turnovers.Daniels, one of the most dangerous offensive players in the Big East, completed only 48 percent of his passes and was picked off for a touchdown and stripped to set up the deciding score. And it could have been even better had WVU not dropped some balls."If you look at it, we had opportunities to knock some balls out. We had some interceptions in our hands,'' Casteel said. "We make those plays and we're not talking about the same game.''As for the exhaustion, it's not as if WVU now has to get right back at it, either."You've got time to rest later,'' Holgorsen said. "We'll take the next four days off and I'd assume everybody involved is going to do a lot of sleeping and a lot of resting and a lot of relaxation.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com