WVU football: Mountaineers block out errors, knock out No. 23 Cincinnati
CINCINNATI -- West Virginia's Eain Smith blocked a field goal as time expired Saturday and special teams combined with critical contributions from offense and defense to brush away a bunch of miscues as the Mountaineer defeated No. 23 Cincinnati, 24-21.
"It's not as much about what we did or didn't do offensively," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It's not as much about what we did or didn't do defensively. Same thing with the special teams. It's not about that. It's about how much effort and energy we played with. It was the theme of the week."
Smith slipped through the right side of Cincinnati's line and with his right hand blocked Tony Miliano's 31-yard field goal attempt. It was WVU's first blocked field goal since 2004. The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1 Big East) trailed 17-7 in the third quarter and led 21-17 with 13:20 to go, but had their six-game winning streak come to an end before 48,152 at Paul Brown Stadium.
WVU (7-3, 3-2) is now one game out of first place in the Big East standings, but must win its final two games at home against Pitt and at USF and then receive help from others to get at least a share of the conference championship and the BCS bid.
The game lasted 3 hours, 52 minutes and featured six replay reviews. Included was one sequence where Holgorsen challenged a spot and won, but then insisted it was third down and not second. The officials actually reviewed it and again agreed with Holgorsen.
"You can't go home until the clock is at all zeros," he said. "We really don't have that much we can do about it. If it lasts three hours or five hours, we can't go home until it shows 0:00. You might as well stay there and do what you're supposed to do."
The Mountaineers can fondly remember an otherwise dreadful day and thank all three parts of the team for doing their part when it mattered. In addition to Smith's save, defensive end Bruce Irvin sacked Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros at his 1-yard line in the second quarter and forced a fumble defensive tackle Julian Miller recovered for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
Collaros hurt his right leg on the play and missed the rest of the game.
On the same goal line in the first quarter, Collaros tried to score on fourth-and-goal at the 1, but was stopped by Miller and cornerback Keith Tandy.
WVU quarterback Geno Smith passed for 372 yards and a first-quarter touchdown after Cincinnati took a 7-0 lead on its third play. Receiver Tavon Austin had nine receptions, 126 yards receiving and another 123 yards in punt and kickoff returns.
Receiver Stedman Bailey caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. He has seven 100-yard receiving games this season, all in the past eight games. David Saunders holds the school's career record with nine 100-yard games.
Smith and his two top targets carried WVU toward its game winning score. Isaiah Pead, who ran for 113 yards and added 67 yards receiving, scored his second touchdown on a 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter. The Bearcats led 21-17. Smith answered by completing a difficult 13-yard pass to Bailey on the left sideline on third-and-9 and then a short pass to Austin for a 23-yard gain on third-and-15. Shawne Aslton scored on a 1-yard run to put the Mountaineers back in the lead.
Smith completed 29 of his 43 passes and 10 players caught at least one pass. Linebacker Najee Goode led a defense playing without starting safety Terence Garvin, who was out with a head injury. Goode made eight tackles and had a sack and three tackles for a loss. WVU allowed the Bearcats to convert 4 of 15 third downs.
Both offenses had 404 total yards, but WVU finished with an even 36 minutes of possession.
The Mountaineers did a lot of other things wrong, though. They were penalized 14 times for 95 yards and managed just 32 yards rushing on 32 carries. Smith was sacked five times and running back Dustin Garrison lost a fumble in the third quarter. Punter Michael Molinari averaged 37.1 yards on seven punts despite one 58-yard kick. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt had a field goal blocked and then missed short and to the left from 47 yards away with 2:01 to go.
Cincinnati's backup quarterback, Munchie Legaux, who passed for 144 yards and ran for 77 and a touchdown, quickly completed 34- and 14-yard passes to help the offense get to the WVU 15. The Bearcats actually called a timeout before Miliano's miss.
Miliano was the reigning national place kicker of the week after making four field goals in last week's win against Pitt. He was 0-for-2 Saturday.
"This is a classic example of trying to find a way to win," Holgorsen said. "The offense could have done it at the end and didn't. The field goal team could have knocked it through and made it a six-point game and didn't. The defense could have caved in at the end and let them score a touchdown and didn't. Then we block a field goal at the end. We found a way to win."
WVU took a hit early, but took control in the middle of the second quarter. Down 10-7, Collaros looked to pass on third-and-12 from his 15, but had to scramble and eventually dropped back to his goal line. Irvin and Goode pounced and Irvin popped the ball loose and into the end zone. Miller recovered for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead with 8:11 to go in the half.
Collaros was taken to the locker room on a cart. Legaux threw an interception to Tandy on his first possession and the offense sputtered on the final three possessions of the half.
The Bearcats led early, though, and WVU looked frazzled. The Mountaineers took the opening kickoff and Smith was sacked on the first play and hurried on the third. WVU's punt went just 38 yards and Cincinnati took over at its 46. Three plays later, Pead scored on a 40-yard run. WVU's defense has allowed a play of 40 yards or longer the past four games.
WVU countered and needed four plays to tie the score on Smith's 59-yard pass to Bailey, who shook off defensive holding and ran under the ball before running away from the defense.
Cincinnati went right back at WVU and was stopped at the 2 when it lined up to kick a field goal. WVU defensive lineman J.B. Lageman jumped offsides before the snap and the Bearcats decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down at the 1. Collaros tried to run right, but couldn't overpower Miller and Tandy.
After the first quarter, the Bearcats had 172 yards of offense and 22 plays. They snapped the ball 12 times in the second quarter and gained three yards. WVU's defense held on three third downs and forced two punts.
Bitancurt gave the Mountaineers a 10-7 lead with a 28-yard field goal after Cincinnati declined a holding penalty that would have moved WVU back to the 24 and likely asked Bitancurt to test his luck and try a longer field goal after third down.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.