WVU football: Mountaineers defense capitalizes on opportunity to snap losing skid
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The idea went through Joe DeForest's head as quickly and as easily as a pass has gone through the defensive coordinator's secondary in most games this season - except Friday's, of course.
West Virginia needed only 11 seconds to answer an Iowa State score with one of its own and Tavon Austin's 75-yard touchdown reception put the Mountaineers ahead 31-24 in a game they would win by the same score.
There were 6 minutes, 31 seconds to go and DeForest was thinking what so many others were thinking.
"I thought we scored too quickly," DeForest said, first with a straight face and then with a laugh.
Five times already in the season he'd seen his defense give up a touchdown with fewer than 75 seconds left in the first half, including against Iowa State. Twice in the five-game losing streak, the Mountaineers lost because of one late, decisive play the opposing offense made that the WVU defense couldn't stop.
Iowa State started at its 35-yard line, but was quickly in trouble when quarterback Sam Richardson ran for two yards on third-and-8. With two timeouts remaining, the Cyclones had to make a decision: Punt, play defense and use the timeouts or go for the first down?
Linebacker Josh Francis let them off the hook. He was penalized 15 yards for grabbing Richardson's facemask after Francis made the tackle.
"Not again," DeForest thought.
The defense, which allowed just 396 yards, its best work in Big 12 play, let Iowa State inside the 20 to the 14, but forced a third-and-10. Richardson's pass was incomplete, but defensive end Will Clarke had a penalty flag thrown at him for illegal use of hands to the face of an opponent.
The Cyclones had first-and-goal at the 7. WVU had that familiar feeling.
"In the back of your mind, you're like, 'Oh, no. Really? We just stopped them and now we're going to get a person foul?' " DeForest said.
Suddenly, the Mountaineers were defending a small space and the shrinking chance they'd end the longest losing streak since 1986.
They were again confronted with the proposition of making a play or facing the most significant consequences.
"I'm not going to lie," cornerback Pat Miller said, "it does go through your head, like, 'Come on, man. We can't give it up again.' "
Against TCU, WVU was ahead by a touchdown late and then allowed a 96-yard touchdown to tie the score with 1:28 to go and force overtime, where the Horned Frogs won on a trick play touchdown and then a deciding two-point conversion
Two games ago, WVU led Oklahoma 49-44 after scoring with 2:53 remaining. The Sooners won the game on a fourth-down touchdown pass with 24 seconds left.
So there were the Mountaineers, seven yards from a game-tying score with 4:04 to go.
"It was really just like earlier in the game, when we got the third down and they fake the punt and get the first down," Miller said. "We go out on the field for a new set of downs and make another stop."
They wouldn't need to wait as long this time. The Cyclones gave the ball to Jeff Woody, the 230-pound fullback who'd rambled for 13 yards the last time he carried on the drive. He barreled through the middle, but quickly found safety Darwin Cook.
He'd told himself before the play that the way Woody was positioned in the backfield meant Woody was running an inside zone play. Cook believed he could hit Woody early and knock the ball loose. It popped out and bounced toward the end zone, which would have been WVU's luck, except that it ended up in the path of freshman safety Karl Joseph.
Cook sprinted for the sideline, relieved to be free from hauntings of recent past.
"When it's happened to you so much, you've got to have it in the back of your head," he said. "It's up to you if you want to stop it and say enough is enough and it's not going to happen again."
The fumble was the only turnover of the game, but it allowed WVU to run out the clock and win the game.
"Ultimately, turnovers win games for you," DeForest said. "In the first half, we dropped three interceptions. This could have been a different game altogether, but when an opportunity came, we made sure we capitalized on it."
Richardson ran for 119 yards and became the first WVU opponent to surpass 100 yards this season. Yet Richardson passed for only 162 yards, the fewest an FBS opponent has had against the worst passing defense in the country this season, completed 13 of 31 passes.
WVU clinched bowl eligibility, likely for the Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx, N.Y., on Dec. 29 against a Big East team or the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27 against a Pac-12 team.
"They did not do one thing different," DeForest said. "We practiced everything they did and we executed well 75 percent of the time and then, like the past, we gave up some plays that we shouldn't give up based on pure technique. We've got to work on it and we're going to get better.
"The kids we had out there, a lot of them were young guys, but they're going to get better and what a great opportunity now to go to a bowl game and get these kids more reps and more practice time."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.