Losing a turnover battle by a 4-1 margin isn’t a good way to get a homecoming win for any football team.
When a defense holds the team with the four extra chances to just 1.7 yards per carry and just a 50 percent pass completion rate, well, it tends to make up for the offensive miscues.
With its passing game having a less-than-stellar Saturday afternoon, West Virginia State relied on its running game and its defense to get a 39-29 win over West Liberty at Lakin Field in Institute. The win pushed the Yellow Jackets’ record to 4-1 overall and kept them unbeaten at 4-0 in the Mountain East Conference.
“For us, our plan is always to attack where they’re weak. No matter what,” WVSU coach John Pennington said. “As a team, on offense on defense we ask ‘Where are they weak?’ and just attack. It’s up to them. If they’re going to set off and play coverage, then we’re going to run the ball.”
Junior running back Dylan Lucas was the primary beneficiary of Pennington’s game plan Saturday, and he was without question the man who made the plan look smart. The former standout at Buffalo High carried 21 times for 149 yards and scored on a 20-yard touchdown run with 2:05 left that gave the Jackets a 39-21 lead.
Lucas also caught seven passes for 58 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass that opened the scoring in the second half and gave State a 23-14 lead. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound junior’s 217 total yards were just 77 fewer yards than West Liberty (2-3, 2-3) managed the entire game.
“We put all the focus on our linemen,” Lucas said. “They played a great game, they opened up big holes for us and they just had a smash mentality. They just came out and did it.”
Lucas’ 149 rushing yards were a career high, eclipsing the 120 yards he ran for against Virginia-Wise in 2018. His longest run from scrimmage against West Liberty came on a 35-yarder in the second quarter as part of a drive that ended with State quarterback Austin Hensley connecting with senior wide receiver A.J. Barnette for a 7-yard score that gave State a 16-7 lead.
Although he was picked off three times in the win, Hensley was steady throughout. He completed 24 of 41 passes for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Barnette led all receivers with seven catches for 123 yards.
Although State nearly doubled the Hilltoppers in total yards, outgaining them 580-294, neither team was able to seize momentum until roughly midway through the final quarter.
“Anytime you play a good team that’s well coached like that, you’re going to have to make adjustments,” Pennington said. “Once we got those adjustments going, then you can live with a smaller game plan. You start getting them off-balance and you’re able to start hitting some big plays.”
West Liberty quarterback Zach Philips ran for a 2-yard touchdown with 9 minutes left in the game, pulling the Hilltoppers within 23-21, and that’s about the time State began hitting big plays when it mattered most. On their ensuing drive, the Yellow Jackets drove quickly down to the West Liberty 23.
At that point, State senior Zach Pate took a pitch to the right, stopped in his tracks, turned and connected on a pass to a wide-open Isiah Scott for a touchdown, pushing State’s lead back to nine at 30-21.
From there, it was the Yellow Jacket defense’s turn. After receiving the ensuing kickoff, West Liberty was held to a three-and-out that was headlined by a tackle for loss by defensive tackle Kenan Johnson and a sack of Philips by linebacker Dustin Crouser. The resulting punt attempt saw the snap go through the back of the end zone for a safety, and momentum had finally tipped decisively in State’s favor.
“Kenan was everywhere. You saw that the whole game,” Pennington said. “From the first play of the game, he was on top of them. We’ve got a great D-line, and they’re doing a great job.”
Johnson finished with 11 tackles and a sack while Crouser had a pair of sacks — the Jackets finished with five — among his six tackles.
Phillips was 16 of 32 passing for 233 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Quincy Wimbush led the Hilltoppers’ ground game with 43 yards on seven carries.
State returns to action next Saturday at Fairmont State (1-4, 1-4). The Falcons are coming off a 22-15 loss at Glenville State.