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WVU football: Mountaineers survive Tribe, 24-17

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia led its Football Championship Subdivision opponent for only a small fraction of Saturday's season-opener at Mountaineer Field, but despite the disappointments that came with that indignity, the Mountaineers were happy enough to have the lead at the end.

Their two quarterbacks and their many new players on offense and defense escaped William & Mary 24-17 before a crowd of 56,350 at Mountaineer Field to move to 1-0 for a 10th straight season.

"We're obviously excited to get out of the game with a victory," said WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen, who is 3-0 in openers, but begins the 2014 season against Alabama in Atlanta.

"Hats off to William & Mary. They were exactly what we thought they were. They were very well coached and didn't make mistakes. I expect these guys will win some games." 

After tying the score late in the third quarter, WVU took the lead for good with 3:22 to go with a 2-yard run by freshman running back Wendell Smallwood. The Mountaineers only led for 11 minutes and 2 seconds.

Senior safety Darwin Cook ended William & Mary's bid for another FCS upset with an interception on the next play from scrimmage. WVU finished the game taking a knee at William & Mary's 4-yard line.

Paul Millard started and finished for WVU and completed 19 of 25 passes for 237 yards and one touchdown. Charles Sims carried 23 times for 120 yards in his first game with the Mountaineers. Freshman receiver Daikiel Shorts caught seven passes for 63 yards and made a heroic play on WVU's game-winning drive.

Down 17-7 at halftime, WVU had 221 yards in the second half after gaining just 165 in the first half.

The Mountaineers, now 13-0 against FCS teams and 16-0-1 against William & Mary, open Big 12 Conference play next Saturday at No. 16 Oklahoma.

"We're going to a place that's incredibly, incredibly hard to play in," Holgorsen said. "They're very well-coached. They've got lots of good players. We're very inexperienced. We had one guy make a big play. I've got lots of concerns."

The Mountaineers trailed for 20:41, but finally pulled even late in the third quarter. After a red zone possession ended with a 22-yard field goal, WVU tied the score 17-17 on a 69-yard pass from Millard to junior college transfer Ronald Carswell with 3:15 left in the quarter.

WVU used play-action out of an uneven three-back formation that gave the Tribe problems throughout the game, and Carswell ran under a perfectly lofted pass in the middle of the field.

Carswell led the Mountaineers with 73 yards receiving in his first game.

"He's got juice," Holgorsen said. "He can run."

The Tribe punted, but Cody Clay was flagged for a chop block and WVU couldn't escape a first-and-22. New punter Nick O'Toole's 56-yard punt gave William & Mary the ball at their 22 with 13:14 left to play.

After gaining a first down, the Tribe took a holding penalty that backed them up to their 24, but picked up a first down with a 21-yard pass. WVU put a stop to the drive at midfield three plays later, but punt returner Jordan Thompson let the punt bounce and roll to the 6.

WVU had to punt again, but O'Toole, who averaged 50.6 yards on five punts in his debut, helped again with a 50-yard kick to the 25. The Tribe went three-and-out, and a low snap preceded a wobbly punt that Thompson caught with a bobble at midfield.

Millard completed a 15-yard pass to K.J. Myers, who fumbled and was rescued by Shorts, who recovered at the 16. Smallwood's touchdown came on the third carry of his career.

"Offensively, we are still trying to find an identity," Holgorsen said. "I thought Paul managed the game well, minus one boneheaded play where he dropped the ball on a sack.

"Other than that, he managed it well. We will get a lot better and look at the tape, and as guys see themselves in game situations, they will improve."  

Tre McBride caught three passes for 108 yards for the Tribe and his receptions set up all of his team's scores. Quarterback Michael Graham was 18-for-27 for 207 yards and a score and William & Mary averaged only 3.3 yards on 31 carries. 

After WVU's defense opened the season by forcing a three-and-out, Millard, in his first career start, led the Mountaineers down the field in just eight plays. He completed four passes to three different receivers and Sims wiggled through the right side for an 11-yard touchdown on his second carry to help WVU take a 7-0 lead.

The Tribe promptly punted again and the Mountaineers converted a first-and-20 with a second straight third-down conversion to start the game. Junior college transfer Dreamius Smith then lost four yards on a first-down run and Josh Lambert was short and wide left on a 55-yard field-goal attempt, the first of the redshirt freshman's career.

William & Mary made use of the short field and needed just six plays to cover 62 yards. McBride used a double move to get past WVU cornerback Ickey Banks for a 40-yard gain. A 1-yard touchdown pass from Graham to Darnell Laws on third down tied the score.

Millard stayed in for a third straight series, but the offense stalled on back-to-back incomplete passes and O'Toole's 32-yard kick set the Tribe up again. McBride got behind the defense a second time, this time beating safety Karl Joseph in the air for a 28-yard gain to the 2. The Tribe scored again on third down with Graham improvising and turning a doomed pass play into a 5-yard touchdown run for a 14-7 lead.

Holgorsen finally pulled the trigger on a quarterback change after Millard started 8-for-8 for 88 yards and then went 1-for-4 for 11 yards. Clint Trickett entered and went three-and-out twice in a row, the second drive derailed by a dropped pass and a sack.

Those were the only six plays for Trickett.

"I thought it was appropriate to go back to Paul," Holgorsen said.  

The Mountaineers defense pitched its fourth three-and-out of the half and Holgorsen opted again for Millard to start at his 32 with 2:06 to go. On first-and-10 at the 48, Millard held onto the ball and couldn't make up his mind on where to run. He was sacked and lost a fumble William & Mary's Jasper Coleman recovered at the 34.

The Tribe converted a third-and-6 and got to the 12, but settled for a 29-yard field goal to end the half. They outgained WVU 201-165 and made good on 5 of 10 third downs to hold onto the ball for 17:06.

William & Mary was 0-for-4 on third down in the second half and totaled just 108 yards of offense and no points. For the game, the Tribe had 207 yards passing and 102 rushing.

"If you would have told me coming up here that we'd be tied going into the fourth quarter, I'd probably take that," William & Mary Coach Jimmye Laycock said. "It was disappointing at the end of the fourth quarter.

"To have offensive and defensive guys that, I don't know, ran out of gas, or if the depth or the heat got to us, or whatever, but we couldn't make the plays we needed in the fourth quarter."

*     *     * 

Junior college transfer receiver Kevin White (foot) did not play. Freshman defensive lineman Darrien Howard, who arrived 10 days ago, dressed for the game, but did not play. The Mountaineers only used 56 players. Eight were first-time starters and 17 didn't play for the team last season.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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