WVU football: Bad plays make difference in WVU season
NEW YORK - Given how widespread the problems were and how understandable the end result was, it might be unfair to whittle down West Virginia's 7-6 season to a handful of plays.
Yet if TCU's two-point conversion pass in overtime hits the ground or if the Mountaineers defend a fourth-down pass in the final seconds instead of allowing Oklahoma's game-winning touchdown, maybe they're not in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl pitted against an opponent that, according to receiver Tavon Austin, "had our number two years in a row."
Said Austin, who had just two catches and 75 yards of offense in the loss, "They had a good defense and a good plan over there. They blitz a lot and their front four did a good job. There were times we got close to busting one and it just didn't happen."
And given how the Mountaineers lost for the fourth time by at least three touchdowns, it might be equally illogical to highlight a small number of plays that cost them dearly.
Two, though, left WVU wondering after the 38-14 loss.
The first was Syracuse's safety in the second quarter, when quarterback Geno Smith was hit and lost the ball before left guard Josh Jenkins recovered in the end zone.
"We had a bad play called," center Jeff Braun said.
The Mountaineers did themselves no favors and sent the offensive linemen to the left, that after calling a play action pass out of a shotgun set from their 1-yard line.
"Geno was actually about to check to a run that would have gashed them, but he didn't," Braun said. "They outmanned us on the right side."
Braun, playing in place of academically ineligible center Joe Madsen, saw it coming and thought the Mountaineers were going to get out of danger with Smith changing the play.
"I was looking through my legs and he walked up toward the line like he was going to check. I knew what he was going to do," Braun said. "Then he walked back and got set and I saw it coming. Right before the snap I saw them bringing everybody."
Three Orange defenders came through the vacated space on the right, as that defense is prone to do, and running back Shawne Alston could only reroute one. Linebackers Cameron Lynch and Siriki Diabate pounced on Smith, who said he was aiming for Austin deep against one-on-one coverage.
Smith said he thought about checking to the run, which would have gone left, where WVU had Syracuse outnumbered.
"I left the pass on because I felt like I could get it off before they got to me, but they sent an extra guy off the right side we weren't able to pick up," he said. "He got right in my face and I wasn't able to escape the pressure and throw it away. I just took a bad safety."
That gave Syracuse a 5-0 lead in the second quarter and the Orange scored six plays after the ensuing free kick for a 12-0 lead. It was the fifth game in which WVU trailed by double digits this season, each time in the first half. WVU lost all five games.
The Mountaineers thought they had a chance to stay with the Orange in the third quarter. Syracuse started the second half with a touchdown, but WVU moved from its 5 to the Orange 28 in five plays. On fourth-and-2, Smith was faced with another decision.
"I saw they went to a 'bear' (4-6) defense, so I checked to an outside zone, which is what you want to do to a bear defense," he said.
The handoff went to Andrew Buie, who made it outside as the defense surged inside and then outran defenders to the end zone. Tight end Cody Clay was flagged for a holding penalty that Coach Dana Holgorsen couldn't believe was called.
WVU had to punt. After trading turnovers, Syracuse's Prince-Tyson Gulley ran 67 yards for his second touchdown of the game and a 26-7 lead.
"That's the way the game goes," Smith said. "Momentum is huge for confidence, for everything. Obviously, we've got to do a better job handling adversity and getting past that and not letting it affect us because it did play a role at that time in the game."
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Smith passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns and had 13 yards rushing. The school's record-holder for career total offense, Smith broke his single-season record set last year (4,369). He finished his career with 102 total touchdowns, one shy of former quarterback Pat White's record.
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Syracuse had 65 running plays. WVU had 61 total plays. The Orange held the ball for 36:23 and the Mountaineers didn't help themselves by going 0-for-11 on third down, 0-for-3 on fourth down and by committing 10 penalties for 103 yards.
So bad and so unusual is the 0-for-11 that WVU doesn't track the history of third down conversions.
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WVU's bizarre year on special teams extended through the final game. Tyler Bitancurt had a 36-yard field goal blocked on the first drive and later had a 29-yard punt. After WVU's second safety, Corey Smith hooked the free kick out of bounds, which gave the Orange the ball at the 50-yard line.
There was also a bobbled return on a kickoff and then a penalty on top of that that started a drive at the 5. Later in the third quarter, WVU had two penalties on a kickoff return.
"The bottom line is our team didn't overcome a lot of things and didn't do enough to keep us in the game," Holgorsen said.