Defense dominates the day
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps Dana Holgorsen wasn't overstating things or trying to provide motivation after all when he praised the work of West Virginia's defense early last week.
After spotting WVU's high-powered offense a 14-0 lead on the first two possessions, the defense dominated the rest of the way in Saturday's Gold-Blue game.
Using a scoring system skewed toward the defense - it was given points for any series in which it kept the offense from scoring - the revamped defense went on a 40-3 run and went on to a 43-34 win.
The game marked the end of West Virginia's spring drills, and afterward Holgorsen didn't seem overly concerned that his offense sputtered more than it surged. It did manage those two early scores and then two at the end of the roughly 90-minute workout in front of a smallish crowd - officials estimated it at 10,000 - kept down by rain and dropping temperatures that forced the cancellation of a planned old-timers game.
"From an offensive perspective, we made some plays but we turned the ball over,'' Holgorsen said. "From a defensive perspective, we gave up some plays but we got some turnovers. Somewhere in the middle of that we're going to be a good team. We've got three months of summer and 30 days of fall camp before we play a game.''
In a pass-heavy scrimmage, quarterbacks Geno Smith and Paul Millard combined to complete 49-of-65 passes for 534 yards and three touchdowns. Smith, the senior starter and an All-American candidate, was 23-for-29 for 281 yards with the first offense. Millard, the sophomore backup, was 26-of-35 for 253 yards.
But they also combined for three interceptions, two thrown by Smith. Brandon Jenkins picked him off to end the first half and defensive end Will Clarke intercepted him to end the first drive of the second half.
Matt Moro also intercepted Millard and Avery Williams forced a fumble when he slammed into freshman receiver Jordan Thompson.
Those two turnovers came on back-to-back plays after the offense had scored on its first two possessions to take that 14-0 lead. After that, the offense was never really the same, struggling to sustain drives as it gave up the lead and eventually lost on the scoreboard.
No one, though, seemed alarmed at the offensive inefficiency. Holgorsen cited a defense that, after 15 practices, knew all of the calls and the checks the offense made, although he said "that's not an excuse.''
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who called all of the plays while Holgorsen watched from on the field behind the offense, said he would have been surprised had it turned out any other way.
"I've been doing this a long time and I can't remember a spring game when we did well,' Dawson said.
That offense, though, seemed to pick up right where it left off in January's 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, at least at the start. On the first drive of the game, Smith hit Stedman Bailey on a 45-yard pass that helped set up Bailey's 2-yard touchdown grab.
Then the No. 2 offense made it look just as easy, driving right down the field to score on a 1-yard run by Shawne Alston, who, along with Andrew Buie, played running back for both the first and second offenses. That made it 14-0 after two possessions.
But then things went terribly awry for the offense. Smith was intercepted by Moro on the second series by the No. 1 offense, then Thompson had the ball knocked loose by a hard hit from Williams.
The offense would get a 36-yard field goal from Tyler Bitancurt, but when the defense ended the first half by stopping the offense on five straight possessions, the combination of turnovers and stopped drives had given the defense a commanding 34-17 lead.
The second half wasn't much different. Clarke intercepted a Millard pass on the first drive and soon the score was 43-20. The offense's only score by then was a 37-yard Bitancurt field goal.
Finally, late in the game, Smith combined with transfer receiver Terrence Gourdine on an 82-yard pass to set up a short TD pass to Thompson. Then after the clock had run out, the game continued until Millard was able to connect with Dante Campbell on a scoring pass to end the game.
Alston and Buie, the only two healthy scholarship backs with Dustin Garrison out with a knee injury, got most of the carries on the ground, combining for 23 carries and 84 yards.
Thompson led all receivers with eight catches for 66 yards, while walk-on Vince Colaianni had seven for 63 yards. Tavon Austin had five catches for 47 yards and Bailey three for 51. Gourdine, a former teammate of Smith and Bailey at Miramar (Fla.), had 118 yards on his three catches.
BRIEFLY: Prior to the game, Tyler Anderson was given the Tom Nickolich Award as the team's most distinguished walk-on. The junior linebacker from Morgantown was presented the award by the Blue and Gold News.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1