By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was the biggest hit Darwin Cook had made for West Virginia University since the Orange Bowl.
You might remember that one. Clemson was going in to score near the end of the first half to take the lead in the game when the football popped loose and Cook scooped it up and lit out for the other end of the field, huffing and puffing into the end zone.
What’s that, you say? The hit?
Oh, that came after he crossed the goal line as he nearly decapitated Obie, the Orange Bowl mascot, a rather interesting thing to do in all honesty for Obie is really nothing but a big orange head.
Cook, being ever the gentleman, approached the fallen mascot following the game, only to learn that this was an orange of the feminine gender.
“I didn’t know you were a girl. I apologize,” he said.
West Virginia went on to win that game, 70-33.
There were no apologies coming on Friday afternoon in the frigid land that is Iowa after Cook made the hit that assured that West Virginia would be bowl eligible, helping to put away a 31-24 victory that not only ended the five-game losing streak that had turned the Mountaineer season to just so much orange juice, but to put them in position to be a coveted bowl attraction for whichever bowl lands them.
“The last three weeks have been tough,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen admitted. “We could be sitting here with a lot better record than we have now if it wasn’t for one play here or one play there.”
This time Cook made the play.
Here was the situation. The game had been a battle of attrition, at least until that effervescent young man by the name of Tavon Austin decided to put his stamp on the affair.
He had made the game’s most electrifying play for naught a short while earlier when he took a punt 68 yards as the crow flies — or about 130 yards as Tavon Austin runs — to the house for what seemed to be a game-turning touchdown, only to learn as he crossed the goal line that K.C. Dillon had held on the play … as if Austin needed such a thing.
The expression on his face was one of disbelief and disappointment, for he had given everything he had within himself on that play.
Anyway, this had not been quite the game he had a week earlier against Oklahoma, when he went for more than half a thousand yards of all-purpose yardage, but he had done a lot of things.
Of course, no one expected a repeat performance.
“What he did against Oklahoma was supernatural,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. “That doesn’t happen every week for a running back.”
Now, trailing 24-23, Austin would turn supernatural again and would win the game for the Mountaineers, taking one of those tip passes from Geno Smith as he went by in front of him and heading left. You could almost hear him say as he went by Smith, “Meet me in the end zone,” for that was where he was headed.
He made the corner, put on the after burners and 75 yards later he placed the ball gently on the ground with one hand … but his work was not done.
WVU’s lead was five points and Holgorsen wanted a 7-point lead. So what did he do?
“That was just a great call by Shannon (offensive coordinator Dawson). He called it on the sideline before we went in. We’d set it up all game,” Smith said.
He gave the ball to Austin again, and he powered his way between two tacklers and into the end zone for the two-point conversion.
So it goes, but now the WVU defense had to make a stop, and it seemed this year about the only stops they were making were at McDonald’s for a Big Mac.
But Cook was ready to save the day, just as it looked like the Mountaineers were about to give it away again.
Iowa State had driven into scoring range, helped no small amount by two unforgivable WVU penalties, and seemed to have taken the lead when freshman quarterback Sam B. Richardson threw to Josh Lenz on pass that had produced a touchdown earlier.
This time, just as the ball was about to be taken into his grasp, Cook rocked Lenz so hard that his fillings rattled and the ball came loose.
And that’s not the hit we’re talking about.
No, that came a couple of plays later when the Cyclones were still involved in this drive and ready to score. They handed the ball to Jeff Woody, their fullback, an Owen Schmitt kind of runner who normally treats the football as if it were made of glass and would shatter if he dropped it.
But Cook had other ideas. He exploded into Woody, the ball bounced loose and rolled right to the goal line, freshman Karl Joseph, a man who had 13 tackles on his own, fell on the football and Iowa State would not get it back.
It was a bit of redemption for Cook, who has not exactly been Holgorsen’s favorite over the past few weeks, missing one game and even last week, against Oklahoma, when he made 10 tackles, Holgorsen wasn’t ready to welcome him fully back into his good graces.
“He played OK. I wouldn’t say he played well,” Holgorsen said of Cook early this week. “He was not playing well early. He got hurt and kind of had something similar to Shawne (Alston), but to a lesser degree, so he was limping around.
“He never skipped practice or went MIA or anything like that. He just didn’t look very good, and that led to the emergence of Cecil Level. Darwin has been doing better, so we put Darwin in after Cecil missed a couple of tackles.”
It’s safe to say that this week Cook endeared himself to the coach as he hadn’t since last January in the Orange Bowl.
NOTES: WVU held Iowa State scoreless in the first quarter. It was the first time all year they had shut out a Big 12 team in any quarter. … When Iowa State scored in the final minute of the first half, it became the fifth score they had allowed in the final minute of a Big 12 game, and Texas almost did it, scoring with 1:14 left. … WVU WR Stedman Bailey’s touchdown grab was his 21st of the season, best in the nation …
WVU gave up the 31st play of 30 yards or longer this year and it was the 11th pass play of at least that long for a TD. ... Want a balance offense? How about 236 passing yards and 239 rushing yards, the second straight game in which the running game accounted for more yards than the passing game. … WVU had allowed an average of only 41 yards in penalties per game this year until being hit with 111 yards on 11 penalties.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.