WVU football: Mountaineers break through
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Lost under the avalanche of mistakes and points that went against West Virginia in its 37-0 loss to Maryland last week was one fact that didn't wash away the performance, but provided some escape from that reality.
Nothing went the way of the Mountaineers.
At the end of a week spent trying to right what had gone wrong, the biggest fix Saturday was something they could not control.
WVU defeated No. 11 Oklahoma State 30-21 before a crowd of 57,280 at Mountaineer Field and was the beneficiary of a bunch of critical breaks along the way.
"I addressed that this week," said Coach Dana Holgorsen, who beat the 11th-ranked team in the fifth game for a second straight season. "Everyone was like, 'We got no breaks.' Well, this is how breaks work: If you play with tremendous effort and try really hard, you'll get breaks. And that's what we talked about on all three sides of the ball.
"Maryland played harder than we did. They got breaks. We didn't. That's not a coincidence. I felt our guys played harder than they did (Saturday), that they gave more effort, that we strained our bodies hard and prepared hard. You do all that and the breaks will come."
Perhaps most important toward the outcome was OSU's 23-yard field goal attempt that bounced off the left upright in the middle of the fourth quarter and kept the lead with the Mountaineers.
The Cowboys had scored on all 15 red zone possessions in their first three games, and every score had been a touchdown. They had the ball on the goal line before trying the field goal.
WVU's offense did nothing with the ensuing possession, but punter Nick O'Toole, who was again a weapon for the Mountaineers, fired a 54-yard punt over the head of dangerous return man Josh Stewart. He bobbled the punt and lost six yards on the return.
Field position now altered, the Cowboys took over at their 15-yard line and then lost half that distance on a penalty for a block below the waist. On second-and 13, quarterback J.W. Walsh threw deep on the right side to Jhajuan Seales, who was behind two defensive backs, but couldn't hang onto a pass that could have easily been a touchdown.
A 40-yard punt gave the Mountaineers (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) the ball at their 48. They nearly stalled twice, but found 17-yard gains on two third-and-long plays. The second, by a leaping Jordan Thompson, saved WVU from a decision about a punt or a long field goal and moved the ball to the 14.
Josh Lambert, who missed two field goals in the third quarter, hit from 27 yards out for a 27-21 lead with 3:54 to go.
WVU safety Darwin Cook picked off a pass on the next drive and Lambert hit again from 34 yards out for the final score. The Cowboys had turned the ball over once all season before committing three turnovers Saturday.
"Tough week," Holgorsen said. "The whole week was challenging. I'm really proud of our team, though. Our coaches and players stayed the course, and we got to the point where we played ball. You can look at stats, but the bottom line is our team bought in and started playing well."
Not that it was easy. The Mountaineers used their third different starting quarterback against the Cowboys, which was one of 21 changes to the weekly depth chart.
"We're going to keep getting better, and if that means changing people around, we'll do that," Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers offense that totaled seven points in losses to Oklahoma and Maryland finished with 388 yards against the Cowboys. Clint Trickett, starting in place of injured Ford Childress, completed 24 of 50 passes for 309 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Running back Charles Sims had 60 yards rushing and 82 yards receiving. Ronald Carswell caught five passes for 77 yards.
"Lots of room for improvement," Trickett said. "We're never going to be exactly where we need to be. I don't know the stats off hand, but we've got a long way to go, and we can get there. That's what's so exciting. We did beat the No. 11 team in the country, but we didn't play our best at all.
"But I do know the defense played phenomenal."
The defense allowed 433 yards, but held the Cowboys (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) to 2.8 yards per rush on 40 attempts, stopped OSU on 14 of 20 third downs, forced 10 punts and five three-and-outs, scored on an interception return and set up a field goal with a fumble recovery.
Walsh passed for 322 yards and three scores, but his interceptions were meaningful and he completed only 20 of 47 passes.
"Obviously, they're playing much better," OSU Coach Mike Gundy, who beat WVU 55-34 last season, said of the defense. "They're more gap responsible. They're running to the football. They're better tacklers than last year."
Down by 10 points at the half, the Cowboys tied the score in the fourth quarter after a 36-yard return of a 57-yard punt gave them the ball at WVU's 44. On third-and-4 at the 6, an incomplete pass seemed to set up a field goal, but cornerback Ishmael Banks was called for a face mask penalty and the personal foul gave OSU the ball at the 3.
After a two-yard gain, a fade pass into the corner was incomplete on second down and a run on third down lost five yards. The short field goal attempt from the right hash hooked hard to the left and crashed into the upright.
WVU's special teams, led by former OSU assistant Joe DeForest, who was singled out in the Sports Illustrated series about the Cowboys program earlier this month, made the third quarter interesting. Carswell bobbled the kickoff that started the second half and was tackled at his 3. WVU punted and OSU used the short field to score in four plays.
Walsh connected on a 30-yard touchdown pass to fullback Jeremy Seaton, who was uncovered coming out of the three-back set in the backfield.
WVU made it into OSU territory on the next drive, but gained just one yard on second-and-4 and third-and 3 before Lambert's 50-yard field goal was blocked.
Later in the quarter, Thompson signaled for a fair catch at his 3. The next time he caught a punt, he did so in a crowd and lost four yards.
WVU used a pass interference penalty and a 44-yard reception by Carswell to get into field goal territory, but Marquis Lucas cost his team five yards with a false start on fourth down and Lambert's 34-yard attempt went wide right.
"Special teams, we've got lots of issues we've got to get sorted out," Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers led 24-14 at the half with a combination of good play and good fortune.
OSU struck early with a 73-yard touchdown pass from Walsh to Stewart. It was a short throw on a tunnel screen into the middle of the field and Stewart wasn't touched the entire way.
Trickett was intercepted three plays later on a deep throw to midfield, but WVU evened things up on defense. Banks dropped off his coverage to step in front of a bad throw by Walsh that was headed to another receiver. Banks found blockers in the middle of the field, danced up the right sideline and dived into the end zone to cap off a 58-yard return touchdown.
OSU later flubbed a 16-yard punt that gave the Mountaineers the ball at their 30. On third-and-9 at OSU's 17, the Cowboys showed an aggressive blitz and left their cornerbacks alone with WVU's receivers. Trickett saw it coming and threw into the void in the middle of the field for Kevin White, who had gotten inside cornerback Justin Gilbert and made the catch for a 14-7 lead.
The lead grew thanks to another break. Following O'Toole's punt that gave the Cowboys the ball at their 9, running back Jeremy Smith was hit by WVU linebacker Brandon Golson and tackled for a one-yard loss.
The play was reviewed and the replay found Golson forced a fumble linebacker Isaiah Bruce recovered at the 29. The Mountaineers came up empty on third-and-9 and tried to kick a 45-yard field goal. Lambert's attempt hit the left upright and fell to the ground, but only after the Mountaineers had called timeout.
When play resumed, Lambert found a way through the uprights for a 17-7 lead.
OSU replied with its best stretch of offense in the half and had three first downs on an eight-play, 76-yard drive. Walsh ended it with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tracy Moore.
Trickett was intercepted again on the next drive when he threw deep again to White, but the Cowboys could only move the ball from their 9 to the 30 and a 13-yard punt gave WVU a chance late in the half.
On first down, Trickett fumbled the snap and managed to recover the ball in a crowd. On the next play, he scrambled to the right and floated a pass to Mario Alford on the right sideline. Alford made the catch at OSU's 11 and held on despite a big hit from safety Daytawion Lowe.
Sims scored three plays later and WVU was granted another reprieve on the extra-point attempt. The Cowboys blocked it and returned it for a 2-point conversion to make it 23-16, but the player who blocked the kick was ruled offsides.
The second attempt was good and the lead stayed at 10 points when OSU missed a 44-yard field goal at the end of the half.
"Playing on the road is about avoiding turnovers, perfecting the kicking game and not giving up big plays," Gundy said. "In two of those three areas, we were poor. We were poor in the kicking game and we turned the ball over. It's really very simple. We played right into the crowd."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.