WVU was prepared for OT against Cincinnati
MORGANTOWN -- Cincinnati was in a timeout on one side of the field with three seconds left in regulation Saturday. West Virginia football Coach Dana Holgorsen was in thought on the opposite side of the field.
Holgorsen knew a 31-yard field goal by the Bearcats would force overtime before a crowd of 48,152 at Paul Brown Stadium. He knew the kicker, Tony Miliano, won a national award for making all four of his field goal attempts a week before inside tricky Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Holgorsen was talking to his coaches on the field and on his headset, figuring out what the Mountaineers would do once overtime started. If they won the toss, they'd play defense. If the Bearcats won, WVU could go toward one end zone that had most of the WVU fans who would conspire against then-No. 23 Cincinnati. But that meant going into the wind, which made everyone consider going the other way and into the Bearcats student section.
Then came the matter of what the Mountaineers would do when they had the ball.
"We had the discussion." Holgorsen said. "I can't tell you, but we had the discussion. Call plays that work."
It never got that far, because the play that worked the best was the one that saw safety Eain Smith block Miliano's kick and preserve a 24-21 victory.
"The crazy thing is all week - and this is one of those things you guys might not see or other people not inside the program don't see - we worked on that field goal block," said defensive lineman Julian Miller, who recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in what had been the game's key play up until the game's final play.
"One thing we noticed early in the week was that right side was the weaker side. On that field goal, it was a perfect opportunity for us to go ahead and take advantage of it."
WVU hadn't blocked a field goal since safety Mike Lorello did it at home against Syracuse in 2004. Smith was pretty sure that streak was coming to an end when he lined up for the kick.
"Honestly, I was thinking, 'I don't want to go to overtime,'" said Smith, who normally starts at strong safety, but moved to free safety Saturday because the starter there, Terence Garvin, was out with a head injury.
"I wanted to leave. All I was thinking was, 'Shoot the gap, get the block, get out of here.'"
In the season's strangest irony, it was the special teams, which have given the Mountaineers all sorts of problems this season, and did so again against the Bearcats, that saved a game WVU could have just as easily lost.
The Mountaineers committed 14 penalties for 95 yards. They ran for just 32 yards on as many carries and quarterback Geno Smith was sacked five times. Freshman running back Dustin Garrison lost a fumble in the third quarter in Cincinnati territory. The offense missed on 11 of 16 third downs.
The defense allowed 404 yards and plays covering 65, 45, 40 and 34 yards. Punter Michael Molinari averaged 37.1 yards on seven punts, even though one went 58 yards. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt had one field goal blocked and then missed a 47-yard attempt with 2:01 to go to set up Cincinnati's final drive.
"We know there were tons of mistakes," said center Joe Madsen, who was not one of the five offensive linemen to commit a penalty. "That's definitely not the kind of football we want to play."
In the end, though, it was winning football. WVU (7-3, 3-2 Big East) improved what had been slim chances to win a share of the Big East by ending Cincinnati's six-game winning streak and handing the Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) their first conference loss.
"It's not as much about what we did or didn't do offensively," 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."
That plan kept the Mountaineers in the game from the beginning, when Cincinnati scored on its third play and WVU needed just four to get even, all the way to the end, when the things actually didn't go according to plan.
Smith's block was welcomed, but wasn't really expected. WVU put in its jumpers in the middle of the line of scrimmage to give the team a better chance to get a hand on Miliano's kick.
"Technically, the play was set up for Ryan Nehlen to block it," Smith said of the 6-foot-2 receiver who jumps 391/2 inches, 3 inches higher than anyone on the team.
That right side sometimes opened wide and Smith had seen enough tape to know if he fired off the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped and hit that gap just right, he'd have a chance to get a hand on the ball.
"I was thinking it, but I didn't say it out loud, that I've got to block that kick," Smith said. "Usually I get my finger tip on it, but the simple fact I shot through the gap clean, I got my whole hand on it."
The block and the win triggered a celebration on the field quarterback Geno Smith described as "pandemonium."
"It's fun to see a team come together and play four quarters and get excited when things happen in our favor," Holgorsen said. "We didn't get down when things didn't go in our favor. That's the way football is. You need to be excited when good things happen and you can't get down when good things don't happen."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com.