WVU football: Alston rescues Mountaineers with critical play
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There were about a dozen decisive plays late in West Virginia's victory against South Florida.
A list of runs, passes, catches, tackles, fumbles and field goals pushed the Mountaineers into the Bowl Championship Series for the third time.
You can watch the highlights or pore over the statistics and probably miss the most critical one. Had it not happened, No. 23 WVU might not be in the Orange Bowl against No. 14 Clemson.
It came between the most memorable play and before the game-winning play, but if you see Shawne Alston some time soon, thank him for what he did.
"I was just trying to do something smart," Alston said. "I knew we didn't have any timeouts left."
Alston has 10 touchdowns this season, coming along as a guy who can get the Mountaineers two yards when they need one, but also as a guy who can skip outside for bigger gains.
His run against USF was the biggest of the season but won't show up in statistics.
The Bulls and Mountaineers, who are going to lose a feisty rivalry when WVU leaves the Big East, were tied at 27 with 13 seconds remaining.
On fourth-and-10 at the USF 42-yard line, Geno Smith threw into a small box 26 yards down the field.
Stedman Bailey leaped on the run to his right and toward a group of converging defenders.
Smith threw to a spot and Bailey flew to that spot, making an unfathomable, unforgettable catch by snaring the ball.
He also stretched just about every part of his body to make the play and couldn't curl up to protect himself before crashing back down to the turf.
Bailey hit the ground hard, bounced, hit the ground again and rolled to a stop.
"He was hurting," Smith said.
The clock had ticked to 6 seconds when Bailey was ruled down and the officials stopped the clock to reset the yard markers and the ball. Bailey panicked and signaled for a timeout, but WVU was out after using three on defense to control the USF offense throughout the second half.
The offense hurried to the line of scrimmage, but Bailey was done. His elbows and his knees were on the ground. He was taking in air like he was trying to inflate a parade balloon so he could get back to his feet.
"Stedman was just dead," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He was tired. You could see it two or three plays before that."
Then came this blur, the 220-pound guardian angel. It was Alston, who stood over Bailey and managed to field and filter everything that was happening during that frantic finish.
"Running backs are taught to go to the ball because you don't know what's going to happen," Alston said. "So I'm running down the field and I see him laying there on the ground."
Alston barked at Bailey, begged him to get up so Smith could spike the ball and the field goal team could get in the game. The defense was back and ready. The offense was taking its places and the offensive linemen were getting into their stances. The referee had the ball in his hand and soon enough he'd put it on the ground and signal to start the clock.
Those are all things Bailey would learn later on because he was oblivious on the field.
"I don't think he even realized what was going on," Alston said. "He was laying there holding his shoulder."
Alston then took matters into his own hands. With one teammate at his feet and the other nine lining up before the snap, Alston grabbed Bailey by his torso.
"I started dragging him back across the line," Alston said. "I tried to pick him up, but I couldn't."
Bailey snapped out of it, stood up and managed to line up at the end of the line and next to Alston.
"Everything's good, but then I look up and we're not even in the right spot," Alston said.
The clock was ticking and Smith was ready to take the snap. Alston and Bailey looked right and realized they were a yard in front of the ball. They hopped back and were in place when the ball was snapped and spiked with 3 seconds remaining.
Had Alston not rescued Bailey, the Mountaineers run out of time and go to overtime. Had Alston and Bailey not had the awareness in that chaos to realize they were offside, the ball is snapped and a penalty is called against WVU. The officials tick away the rest of the clock as a punishment and the game heads to overtime.
When the players and coaches talk about finding ways to win, what Alston did is no less important than Bailey's catch, the sacks against Pitt or Eain Smith's blocked field goal against Cincinnati.
"I was yelling at them, but you couldn't hear it. 'Get up,' only goes so far," Holgorsen said.
"Shawne's a smart player."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.