The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 5, 2010

WVU routs Rutgers, 35-14; UConn earns BCS berth

MORGANTOWN — In the moments after West Virginia University had finished one of the most satisfying turnarounds in the school’s history, winning its final four games to earn a share of the Big East Conference championship, there was only one question left to answer.

Would it be good enough to send the Mountaineers to a BCS bowl game?

They had done their part, beating Rutgers, 35-14, on a cold December afternoon to finish the regular season 5-2 in the Big East, 9-3 for the year, and in so doing they showed both why they deserved that BCS bid and why they didn’t.

Just as it was in all season long, when West Virginia was good it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was horrid.

And so the Mountaineers left the stadium, waiting to see if Connecticut would cooperate and lose at South Florida, thereby sending them to either the Orange or, more likely, the Fiesta Bowl, a decision that came before midnight when Connecticut defeated South Florida, 19-16, to earn the BCS bid. That most likely will send WVU to Orlando, Fla., to play in the Champs Sports Bowl, unless they select Notre Dame. That would send WVU to Charlotte for the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

The Mountaineers’ three losses during the season — LSU, Syracuse and UConn — all came because of turnovers, and it seemed as though they were doing all they could to self destruct in this one. They put the ball on the carpet more often than the officials threw their flags against them, fumbling four times and losing three of them.

The three lost fumbles came in scoring territory — Ryan Clarke fumbling the ball away at the Rutgers 8, Jock Sanders fumbling at the Rutgers 16 and quarterback Geno Smith fumbling struggling to get into the end zone.

Each would make amends, Clarke coming back to score three touchdowns, Sanders catching six passes for 81 yards to tie Khori Ivy for the school and Big East record of catches in 40 consecutive games, while Smith, with 352 passing yards, had the most productive passing game since Marc Bulger threw for 429 yards against Missouri in the 1998 Insight.com Bowl.

Clarke, of course, had fumblitis in that Connecticut game in which the Mountaineers gave the ball away four times, but this time it didn’t cost the team.

“It is part of the game,” Clarke would say later. “I’m not worried about dropping the football. I did my job today. My job is to finish drives off, and that’s what I’ve got to do.”

“We had some spotty play,” said coach Bill Stewart, now possessing three consecutive nine-victory seasons. “I didn’t think we tackled well and I don’t think we handled the ball well, but we gave great effort.”

The offense, which had taken the blame for many of the troubles that saw WVU get off to a 1-2 start in conference play, is now going on high octane. Smith completed 23 of 29 passes for his 352 yards and one touchdown, and he mixed in 11 runs for 44 yards.

His running on the belly series became even more important early in the fourth quarter with the lead just 21-7 when Rutgers decided to play him in the running game instead of running back Tavon Austin, a terrible mistake for Austin took the ball 46 yards right up the middle without anyone touching him for his eighth touchdown of the season.

“Finally, they took No. 12 and he gave it to Tavon,” Stewart said.

“My eyes got real big when I saw that hole,” Austin admitted.

Smith was dazzling all game, completing passes for 20 or more yards to five different receivers, including a well-executed delay to tight end Will Johnson for 37 yards. The only touchdown would be a 19-yard screen pass to Austin.

“We have a sophomore quarterback who has a chance to be phenomenal,” Stewart gushed. “The sky is the limit.”

Smith took the praise in stride, preferring to mention what the other sophomore, Austin, had in store.

“Tavon is going to explode next year,” he said.

While the offense was making news as it scored 35 points or more for the third time in its last four games, the defense just was its boring old almost perfect self.

It held its 12th straight opponent to 21 or fewer points, allowed Rutgers only 63 rushing yards and just 203 total yards, but 71 of the total yards came on the final drive against backups with the score 35-7.

Once again, the Mountaineers held their opponent without a rushing TD and have given up only three this year.

They stopped Rutgers virtually without two starters, nose guard Chris Neild battling a hamstring problem that allowed him to play only a few plays and cornerback Brandon Hogan going down early with a knee injury that did not appear serious after the game.

NOTES: Defensive end Bruce Irvin added two more sacks and now has 12 for the season. The school record is 16.5 set by Canute Curtis in 1996 … Noel Devine continues to mystify with his inability to break runs, finishing his senior day with 31 yards on 13 carries … The Mountaineers wore a No. 52 sticker on their helmets in honor of injured Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand … Austin has six touchdowns in the last four games …. Only 10 schools have recorded at least nine victories in each of the last three seasons.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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