Hell froze over today. The Mountaineers were involved in a DEFENSIVE struggle in a thrilling double overtime game. You did not read that wrong: I said defensive.
The Mountaineers defense, giving up touchdowns by the bushel for virtually the entire season, held the Horned Frogs to a three and out on their first series of the game. Fans in Morgantown gave the maligned defense a standing ovation for their efforts.
The cheering stopped just minutes later when TCU took the ball down the field with a steady, consistent drive for a touchdown. Fans began to fear that the defensive stop would be one off. The defense restored the gold and blue clad fans faith with a second three and out.
At that moment, it was apparent, that this defense was a completely different one than had been on the field the first half of the season. Same players, similar scheme, but a whole new attitude. The defense played with swagger today and it was reflected in the box score.
The West Virginia defense held the Horned Frogs to 405 yards of total offense and 39 points. That is a relatively solid improvement from the 676 yards they gave up to Texas Tech and 479 yards to Kansas State. Joe DeForest worked a miracle during the bye week to turn the Mountaineers defense around. They played hard and fast all afternoon and looked like a unit that was full of confidence. West Virginia let the dogs loose in the pass rush, sacking Travone Boykin 3 times. That is a big accomplishment against a talented dual threat quarterback.
What DeForest has preached all year has been turnovers. The Mountaineers defense has aimed all season to win the battle of turnovers and give their explosive offense the ball as frequently as possible. Today, the Mountaineers defense lived up to their end of the bargain. The WVU defense and special teams forced 3 turnovers by the Horned Frogs. Isaiah Bruce had the most important turnover of the game, picking off a pass in the endzone when TCU was driving to take the lead late in the third quarter. The Mountaineers also forced a pair of fumbles to give the WVU offense more time to work with.
Offensively, Geno and company looked to be in and out of sync every other drive today. The offense couldn’t get anything going on the first drive of the game, going three and out. But when they got the ball a second time, the Mountaineers worked the ball down the field for a touchdown. That hot and cold trend would continue for the rest of the afternoon.
The running game struggled to make their presence felt for most of the day. Shawne Alston’s first game back from a nagging thigh injury was not a memorable one. Alston just did not seem to have the ability to drive his legs through tacklers and it showed in his statistics. The big guy came into the game averaging x yards per carry. His average was way down today, as he ran the ball 7 times for 16 yards and a touchdown.
Alston’s stable mates Garrison and Buie did not fair much better against the 23rd ranked TCU defense. The dynamic duo combined for 56 yards rushing and 23 yards receiving. Between the two little backs, Alston and others, the Mountaineers only managed a meager 70 yards on the ground.
The West Virginia passing game also had some struggles against the Horned Frogs defense. TCU did a great job of jamming the WVU receivers at the line of scrimmage and staying with the Mountaineers down the field. Stedman Bailey was completely blanketed, leaving Geno to have to look Tavon Austin’s way more than he would have liked.
Austin responded well to the added targets from Geno. Tavon caught 11 passes for 101 yards and 1 touchdown. Tavon’s big quick pitch play in the second quarter was, to say the least, a jaw-dropping performance. Austin easily ran 100 yards on his way to a 43 yard touchdown reception. Austin also added a monumental 76 yard punt return in the fourth quarter to give the Mountaineers a late lead.
While Tavon’s electrifying plays are going to be the signature plays of the afternoon, easily the most important offensive play came from the mercurial receiver J.D. Woods. Geno threw up a duck as he was getting nailed by the TCU pass rush and the pass seemed to be a sure fire interception in the back of the endzone. Woods came from behind the Horned Frog safety to not just break up the interception bid, but to grab the ball for a fluke touchdown.
Had Woods not been able to snatch that pass out of the jaws of disaster, the Mountaineers would have suffered an early momentum swing and might not have recovered. It is not even a stretch to say that grab was the highlight of Woods career to date.
That early bit of luck kept Geno’s confidence up. Geno Smith, looking to salvage his Heisman trophy campaign, had a relatively pedestrian performance. Smith had a tough time escaping the TCU pass rush for much of the afternoon. It is tough to put the blame on the lack of protection on the offensive line as they did everything they could. The real problem lied with the wide receivers not being able to find any real estate down the field.
With not a lot of passing options, Geno was commonly forced to roll out of the pocket and take matters into his own hands. Not known for his rushing, Smith ran the ball 10 times for 29 yards. While you never want to see your quarterback take unnecessary shots by running the ball, Smith did a pretty good job of keeping the sticks moving.
Geno would wind up with 260 yards passing, for 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception to accompany those rushing stats. Not exactly the beautiful kind of performance WVU fans have come to expect from the senior.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That would be the general theme of this game. The offense was up and down the entire game. The special teams were both ugly (Bitancurt) and beautiful (Austin).
The Mountaineers defense looked like a super model compared to how ugly they have looked the past couple months. While the defense could not keep the Horned Frogs out of the endzone at the end of the game, they looked drastically improved over previous weeks. This was not a complete performance by the Mountaineers defense, but it gives fans hope for improvement.
While every Mountaineer was starving for a victory, a close loss after weeks of getting your doors blown off, is a moral victory. Albeit, an awfully painful moral victory.