By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s season is teetering on the brink of disaster today following a courageous but disappointing 47-40 overtime loss to Texas on Saturday night before 58,570 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The defeat left the Mountaineers with a 4-6 record, needing to sweep their final two games to finish at .500 and bowl eligible. On the plus side of the ledger is that the two games are against Kansas and Iowa State, both winless in the Big 12.
WVU built an early 9-0 lead but saw starting quarterback Clint Trickett battered from the game early with an unspecified injury, completing just two of four passes and being sacked five times.
Paul Millard came off the bench to replace him and after a slow start came on to complete 16 of 32 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown. He threw two interceptions, the final one coming on the game’s last play, a desperation fourth-down attempt in overtime.
“He did well. For a guy who had been benched and hadn’t taken a bunch of reps, he did well,” said coach Dana Holgorsen. “We didn’t make enough throws. We didn’t make enough catches.”
Texas had scored on its overtime possession when Case McCoy, who had managed to find himself time after time facing third down in the second half, threw a 2-yard scoring pass to fullback Alex De La Torre on third-and-1 in overtime.
The game was the fourth in a row in which WVU blew a second half lead, although last week against TCU the Mountaineers recovered to win in overtime.
The two hours before the game held almost as much intrigue as the game itself.
First it was Texas’ offensive and defensive linemen coming out for their early warmups, and they really needed to warm up, considering they did so shirtless, a sign that the cool West Virginia evening would not intimidate them.
Not to be undone, WVU warmed up wearing gold helmets, then came out for the game wearing white helmets.
It probably had nothing to do with the switch in helmets, but the game quickly fell WVU’s way.
Forced to punt on its first possession, WVU caught a break when the ball hopped wildly over the returner’s head and rolled to the Texas 7, setting up the first score of the game, a rather interesting one, at that.
The WVU defense stopped the Longhorns cold, then on a punt Jewone Snow was given a free pass into the backfield, where he blocked the kick through the back of the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 lead.
The last time any Mountaineer had blocked a punt for a safety was at the turn of the century, Phil Braxton pulling off such a feat against Temple.
WVU took advantage of the ensuing kickoff, Mario Alford returning it to the Texas 43, leading to a 3-yard TD plunge by Charles Sims to make it 9-0.
But trouble lay ahead for WVU and Trickett, as Texas unleashed a fierce pass rush that nearly tore the quarterback limb from limb.
“We protected at about a 50 percent rate, which is disgusting,” Holgorsen said.
Before the quarter was out, Trickett was sacked four times in five plays, the last time leaving him lying in pain on the ground, needing medical aid and the rest of the night off.
Trickett not only was injured on the play, but fumbled and Texas’ Jack Jeffcoat recovered, leading to a 37-yard field goal by Penn State transfer Anthony Fera to make it 9-3.
With Trickett out of the game, Paul Millard stepped forth, only to go three-and-out on his first possession and then to be stripped of the ball the next time, Cedric Reed coming up with it.
That led to Malcolm Brown bursting over from the 2 and a 10-9 lead.
WVU, at this moment, found itself possessing minus-17 rushing yards and averaging 20.9 inches per play, half the second quarter gone.
But things were about to change as the Mountaineers figured something out and Millard led them on a 51-yard drive in five plays, two key passes to Kevin White, with Sims scoring his second touchdown on a sweep around the right side from 6 yards out to make it 16-10 with 7:24 left in the half.
WVU would have liked to have some carryover from that, but the Mountaineers didn’t, being punted back to their 14 and then having Millard crushed one more time by Cedric Reed, who got the sack, caused the fumble and recovered it at the WVU 7.
The defense remained tough, though, and held Texas to a field goal, preserving the lead at 16-13.
WVU made the most of its final possession of the half, ending with a 30-yard field goal from Josh Lambert, his eighth straight successful field goal, and the Mountaineers took a 19-13 lead into the locker room despite possessing only 134 total yards and having been sacked six times.
WVU dodged another bullet coming out of the locker room, surviving a Texas interception of Millard that put the ball at the WVU 7. The defense stiffened and held for a field goal, maintaining at 19-16 lead.
Millard arched his back and came right back, leading WVU on a 91-yard drive that ended with Sims’ third TD and a 26-16 lead, which seemed relatively safe.
But it was the middle of the third quarter, and that’s when the roof caves in on the Mountaineers every week, and this was no different as Case McCoy, who had been atrocious to this point, hit a wide-open Mike Davis for a 49-yard TD to bring Texas back to within a field goal at 26-23.
And then the Mountaineers fell behind as Davis made another great catch to get them into position, capping it with Joe Bergeron scoring from 8 yards out to give the Longhorns a 30-26 advantage.
The action was just starting, however, as WVU regained the lead when Dreamius Smith ran 8 yards for a TD, only to have McCoy complete a 10-yard fade route to Jackson Shipley for a score to regain at 37-33 lead.
It was a shortlived lead, Millard hitting Mario Alford with a slant and having him outrun cornerback Duke Thomas all the way to end zone for a 72-yard touchdown.
That seemed to cinch the game but Texas still had life, again taking advantage of a dismal 30-yard punt by Nick O’Toole that put the Longhorns in position to drive for a tying field goal of 24 yards with 13 seconds left, forcing WVU into overtime for a second straight week.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.