TAMPA, Fla. -- This find-a-way West Virginia team did just that for a third straight game Thursday night and may soon find a way to the Bowl Championship Series.
Tied 27-27 and guarding its end zone with three minutes to play, the defense denied what seemed like inevitable defeat and again saved the outcome for the Mountaineers.
Two weeks after a defensive touchdown and a last-second blocked field goal defined a win against Cincinnati and a week after four sacks on the final drive and 10 in the game helped in a win against Pitt, Najee Goode stripped South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels at the WVU 26-yard line and fellow linebacker Doug Rigg recovered.
The offense then finally did its part when quarterback Geno Smith completed a 26-yard pass to Stedman Bailey on fourth-and-10 to move to the USF 16 with six seconds to go. Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired to give No. 22 WVU a 30-27 victory before a crowd of 41,742 at Raymond James Stadium.
"It's what we all talk about," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We figured out who we are. We're a team that comes out and plays hard for four quarters. We get excited to make plays and get excited when others make plays, but above all else we keep playing and find a way to win."
WVU survived not scoring an offensive touchdown for almost 55 minutes thanks to two non-offensive touchdowns. Cornerback Pat Miller returned his first career interception 52 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and Tavon Austin retuned a kickoff 90 yards in the third quarter for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead.
The last time the Mountaineers scored two non-offensive touchdowns was 2003. They did it in wins twice that season, first at Boston College and then at home against Temple as part of a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season.
The win against the Bulls was the third in a row for WVU (9-3, 5-2 Big East) to end this regular season and clinch a share of the Big East championship for the second straight season, this time with at least Louisville.
The Mountaineers will represent the conference it is suing and that is suing WVU in the Bowl Championship Series next month if Cincinnati can create a three-way tie. If the Bearcats win at home Saturday against Connecticut, the Mountaineers own the second tiebreaker by being ranked highest among WVU, Cincinnati and Louisville in the BCS standings.
"I'm the biggest Cincinnati fan right now," Smith said.
Holgorsen, who earned a $50,000 bonus for the Big East championship and $25,000 for winning nine games in the regular season, became the first coach in school history to win nine times in his first regular season.
"Give the guys the credit for hanging in there and not folding up and for continuing to play," Holgorsen said. "There were a lot of times I was not comfortable calling plays, but you just can't quit."
As they did against Cincinnati and Pitt, the Mountaineers won without much from the offense. This time, there was more hurt than help. Ahead 13-7 at the half and then inside the USF 5 early in the second half, WVU turned the ball over three times on just 11 snaps and went from being ahead 20-10 to trailing 27-20.
"I'm not going to lie to you," defensive tackle Julian Miller said. "That was ridiculous."
After USF turned a WVU fumble into a field goal drive, Austin returned the kickoff for a touchdown for the second time this season and the third time in his career for a 20-10 lead. USF had to punt, but Smith was intercepted on third down, the second turnover in six plays in the quarter. The Bulls took over at the WVU 32. A pass interference penalty against Keith Tandy gave USF (5-6, 1-6) a first down at the 2, but the defense forced a 20-yard field goal.
The Mountaineers had to punt and the Bulls moved inside the WVU 5 again and this time scored when Daniels sneaked in from a yard out on third-and-goal to cap a 15-play, 76-yard drive.
On WVU's next play, a pass to the left to Austin was intercepted by JaQuez Jenkins and returned 24 yards for a touchdown and a 27-20 lead. The Mountaineers finally put together a drive and covered 77 yards in 11 plays and tied the score on Dustin Garrison's 5-yard touchdown with 5:09 left to play.