Rude awakening for WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There could, of course, have been worse outcomes for West Virginia's football team Saturday afternoon after facing an FCS opponent.
Ask Oregon State. Or Kansas State. Or Iowa State, Connecticut or South Florida.
"There's plenty of FCS teams out there that are a little bit more happy than William & Mary right now after beating some FBS teams,'' Dana Holgorsen said. "It happens every week. We were fortunate to get out of there without it happening to us.''
It nearly did. William & Mary, an FCS school that won just two games last season, led West Virginia 17-7 at halftime and was tied well into the fourth quarter. The Mountaineers finally got a short go-ahead touchdown run from freshman Wendell Smallwood with 3:22 to play and an interception by Darwin Cook to seal the deal two plays later and managed to walk out with a 24-17 win.
It came in front of a crowd of 56,350 at Mountaineer Field.
Afterward, Holgorsen perhaps understated the obvious.
"We have a long way to go on all three sides of the ball,'' he said.
He'll get no arguments.
West Virginia's rebuilt offense was largely vanilla. The reconfigured defense played fairly well but gave up some big plays that mattered. And the special teams for the most part were average with the exception of punter Nick O'Toole, who averaged 50.6 yards and helped set up the winning drive by initially changing field position.
In fact, the only thing the Mountaineers did manage to really solve, at least for the time being, was that sticky question at quarterback. Millard emerged from the game the clear No. 1 over Florida transfer Clint Trickett.
Then again, neither was asked to do much with an offense that ran the ball 44 times and threw it just 27.
"We asked the quarterback to manage the game,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. "And he did. But obviously the game plan was pretty simple.''
Millard, who served two seasons as Geno Smith's backup without really ever having to perform under pressure, started and played most of the game. He was red hot at the start, completing his first eight passes, but cooled off and was replaced by Clint Trickett in the second quarter. But Trickett's two series were both three-and-outs that included 0-for-2 passing and a sack.
So Millard returned at the end of the first half and had a fumble that led to a William & Mary field goal, but then started the second half and played well again. He played the rest of the game, completing 19 of 25 passes for 237 yards.
"I thought he managed the game well, minus one boneheaded play where he dropped the ball on a sack,'' Holgorsen said. "Other than that he managed it well.''
And that's pretty much all he was asked to do. He handed off, usually to Houston transfer Charles Sims, who carried 23 times for 120 yards and a touchdown. He threw deep really only twice, hitting junior college transfer Ronald Carswell on a wide-open 69-yard touchdown in the third quarter that tied the score at 17.
"I took care of the ball for the most part except for that one fumble,'' Millard said. "But I've got to get better in everything.''
West Virginia's reconfigured and supposedly re-energized defense, meanwhile, actually played pretty well. After West Virginia took a 7-0 lead on the first drive of the game, the Tribe scored 17 straight points to end the half and take a 17-7 lead, but those scores all came with asterisks.
The two touchdowns were set up by spectacular catches by NFL-caliber wide receiver Tre McBride. The field goal was a direct result of Millard's fumble.
"They're going to give up plays,'' Holgorsen said. "What happened today with McBride making plays, that's going to happen. Next week when we play [Oklahoma], they're going to have some guys that can make some plays. We have to be able to overcome that and just keep playing. And I think we did a really good job of that today.''
Indeed, McBride's catches - 40- and 28-yarders inside the WVU 5-yard line - set up touchdowns, but that was it. After the field goal near the end of the half, the Mountaineers pitched a shutout.
"You could tell the second half they were much more comfortable,'' defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said.
And that allowed West Virginia's suddenly methodical offense to take control and eventually win.
The Mountaineers' first points of the second half came at the end of a 15-play, 70-yard drive that took more than six minutes and included a fourth-and-1 conversion on a run by Dreamius Smith. But the march sputtered near the goal line and WVU had to settle for a field goal from redshirt freshman Josh Lambert. That closed the gap to 17-10.
West Virginia tied the score in a much flashier manner. On its next possession, Millard, operating out of a three-back backfield, found a wide-open Carswell on a post route in the middle of the field. Carswell ran past the cornerback, and because the Tribe was cheating up against what looked like a run formation there was no safety help. He finished off the 69-yard touchdown by trotting into the end zone and the score was tied at 17 with 3:15 to play in the third.
"All I had to do was make sure I didn't overthrow the guy,'' Millard said.
Then finally in the fourth quarter West Virginia put all three phases together. O'Toole got off a 60-yard punt from near his own goal line and Cook tackled returner Sean Ballard for a 2-yard loss. The defense forced a three-and-out and a punt from the William & Mary 19 that reached only to midfield. Then Smallwood's run capped an eight-play drive, only one of which was a pass.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.