WVU offense struggles in Champs Sports Bowl loss
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The situation at halftime for West Virginia had to seem pretty familiar. For the fifth time in 13 football games this season, the offense was entering the locker room having scored 10 points or fewer.
There were differences Tuesday night and causes for concern, most notable among them being the game was the Champs Sports Bowl, and the opponent was an offensively capable team that had in the first half nearly matched what other teams averaged in a game against the defense.
The end felt similar, too, with one major exception.
North Carolina State did to WVU what no other opponent had this season. The Wolfpack defeated the 22nd-ranked and error-riddled Mountaineers, 23-7.
N.C. State (9-4) became the first opponent to score more than 21 points against WVU (9-4), which was the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that hadn't allowed more than that in a game this season.
"We weren't quite good enough," WVU linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "I saw a little rust on the defense and I think that comes from not being able to get enough game reps."
Still, for a majority of the game, the Wolfpack didn't do anything memorable that went toward the outcome. Their highlight plays were a botched fake field goal in the second quarter and an acrobatic interception in the fourth quarter.
They just had a lot of help from WVU before 48,962 spectators at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
The Mountaineers missed two field goals and committed a season-high five turnovers. All five came in the second half. Three were in their own territory and two preceded Wolfpack scores.
"When you think about a game with two great defenses, it comes down to other things," WVU safety Sidney Glover said. "It's not just how the defense plays. It comes down to the kicking game, to special teams, to turnovers. I guess the ball bounced their way and they got more than we did."
The end arrived late, with 5:02 remaining. Jock Sanders fumbled a punt he tried to field with a fair catch at his own 7-yard line. Three plays later, N.C. State had its most exciting play of the game.
On third-and-goal, junior quarterback Russell Wilson slipped out of the reach of a diving Bruce Irvin and rolled right. He faked Thomas in the open field, going down to the turf and keeping himself up with one hand, before floating a pass back to the left into the middle of the end zone to Jarvis Williams for a touchdown and the game's final score.
Wilson was named the bowl's MVP.
WVU finished the season with 28 turnovers, the most since 2001.
That team went 3-8 and had 32 turnovers. The Mountaineers finished minus-6 in turnover margin this season and lost the turnover battle in seven games, where they were 4-3.
"My hat goes off to N.C. State," West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said. "They have a great defense, which we knew all along, but we also have an incredible confidence in ourselves on offense. We feel like no one can stop us if we don't stop ourselves, which is what we did (Tuesday)."
Tavon Austin lost a fumble at his 26-yard line early in the third quarter and the Wolfpack kicked a 38-yard field goal for a 13-7 lead. WVU's Jock Sanders returned the kickoff 60 yards, but after a first-and-10 at State's 34, the Mountaineer offense turned the ball over on downs on fourth-and-10.
"That was big right there," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said. "It's 13-7, and if we get points right there, who knows?"
The Wolfpack kicked another field goal and the offenses traded punts before WVU took over at its own 8. Noel Devine ran 28 yards on first down, but lost a fumble.
WVU's defense forced a field-goal attempt and N.C. State's Josh Czjakowski missed from 27 yards. The Mountaineers took the ball to the N.C. State 39 - but Smith was intercepted by a leaping Brandan Bishop at the 10.
WVU forced another punt, but Tyler Bitancurt missed a second field goal, this time from 42 yards. It was his fifth miss in seven attempts from at least 40 yards this season.
"Their kicker made field goals, ours didn't," Stewart said. "That deflates you a little bit, but certainly the loss is not all on our kicker."
WVU had 326 yards of offense and was 6-for-13 on third down, but they had two eight play drives and the longest went for 64 yards. That ended with the team's only touchdown, a 32-yard pass from Smith to Stedman Bailey.
"From the beginning of the game to the end of the game, we couldn't get a flow going," left tackle Don Barclay said. "The one touchdown was a big play. There wasn't a drive with 10 yards, 10 yards, 15 yards. There was no flow and that really hurt us."
The Mountaineers were mostly at a loss to explain their latest anemic effort.
"Did you see the zone blitzes I saw every play?" Stewart said. "Thank you."
Fully aware of what to expect, Stewart still entrusted the offense to Smith and WVU ran the ball 25 times. Smith finished 22-for-39 for 196 yards and was sacked twice, but hurried often.
"We felt our strength was our receivers and Geno throwing it," Stewart said.
Wilson was 28-for-45 passing for 275 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to 11 different receivers. Wilson added 60 yards rushing and would have been the game's leading rusher if not for five sacks.
The Wolfpack leaned on the pass early and on a 10-play touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead called a pass on every down. Wilson was 7-for-9 for 79 yards. He scrambled for 7 yards on a pass play WVU covered. The drive ended on a 16-yard pass to running back Mustafa Greene.
The Mountaineers were looking at the possibility of a larger deficit. N.C. State took over at its 18-yard line, but the offense moved and an 18-yard run by Wilson set up a first down at the WVU 22. The defense held and the Wolfpack lined up to attempt a field goal, but instead tried a fake.
As the snap went to the holder, Cory Tedder, the kicker ran around the right side. Tedder flipped the ball over his head to Czakjowski, but the ball never made it to the target and bounced away on the turf. WVU's Terence Garvin recovered at the 32.
The Mountaineers finally had something to feel good about and Smith completed a pass to Sanders for 26 yards on first down. On third-and-4, Smith ran away from a blitz and gained 8 yards. The possession stalled, though, when Smith was hurried on third-and-8 and threw the ball away to set up a 45-yard field goal. Bitancurt missed wide right.
WVU kept going, though. After converting 2-of-6 third downs in the first four drives, the Mountaineers were 2-for-2 on a drive to even the score. On a third-and-9, Smith passed for 14 yards to Austin. On third-and-8, he threw a short pass to Shawne Alston that he turned into a 9-yard gain.
On second down at the N.C. State 32, Smith was hit hard from the blindside, but still arced a ball over a defender and into Stedman Bailey's arms in the end zone with 2:10 to go in the first half.
N.C. State returned the kick 46 yards and took a 10-7 lead on a 45-yard field goal. Its offense managed 208 yards in the first half, more than WVU allowed in four games this season. The Mountaineers had entered the game No. 3 in total defense and had allowed just 251.3 yards per game.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.