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September 18, 2011

WVU survives Terps’ comeback

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — OK, it wasn’t exactly “The Drive,” and Geno Smith wasn’t exactly John Elway, either, but in West Virginia University lore what happened to save the Mountaineers’ 37-31 victory over Maryland on Saturday deserves at least an asterisk in the history books.

See, disaster was lurking right around the corner after WVU had played a nearly flawless first half, taking a 27-10 lead that would within 3 minutes and 24 seconds of the second half swell to 34-10 on a pass from Smith to his former high school teammate Stedman Bailey.

Players were having a rollicking good time on the sidelines, Smith at times urging the large contingent of Mountaineer fans among the 53,627 on hand to cheer louder and players walking around with their heads bouncing up and down like a bobblehead doll.

But Maryland, which was well on its way to losing for the sixth straight time to WVU, had a touch of the “we-ain’t-taking-this-sitting-down” in them and came roaring from behind.

“I don’t expect anyone to quit,” Terrapin coach Randy Edsall proclaimed after the game. “On a Randy Edsall-coached team there are never going to be any quitters. If there is someone who is going to be a quitter, they aren’t going to be on this team.”

He did not explain how he squared that with quitting his job at Connecticut, but that is another story.

What happened in this game was the Terps got a new life while the Mountaineers went stale on offense and defense, Maryland scoring three consecutive touchdowns. Suddenly, there were kicking off with 10:23 left down by only a field goal.

WVU had to run some plays, run some clock and get some points to put the game away.

It wasn’t anything like Elway’s drive in the 1987 AFC championship game against Cleveland, going 98 yards to tie the game with 37 seconds left. It wasn’t even anything like Smith’s drive last year to tie the game on the final play of regulation against Marshall.

But considering the prize they were playing for was a home showdown against LSU this week, with a win there perhaps propelling them into the national championship picture, this was a big moment.

“I think we all knew how big it was,” Smith said. “You play enough games, you understand how important momentum is and that you have to go out and make a play. You use the same model; you get first down after first down and don’t worry about scoring.”

And that was what he did. There were some scary moments along the way, to be sure, having to convert on third-and-4 with a pass to Bailey for 21 yards and then facing a third-and-9 and finding Ryan Nehlen for his first collegiate catch and first down at the most clutch moment.

The Mountaineers pushed the ball all the way to the Maryland 3 with a first down, only to have Shawne Alston be thrown for a loss of a yard and then Smith throw incomplete to Tyler Urban deep in the end zone and then badly miss Bailey on a fade.

“He missed a couple of throws on the goal line he has to make and he didn’t,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The one on the goal line was awful. We knew we’d get single coverage. Stedman had an unbelievable release, and the throw was terrible. It’s a part of Geno’s game that has to get better.”

“It was an easy throw. I made it look hard,” Smith admitted.

So he was no Elway, but the Mountaineers were in position to bring Tyler Bitancurt on to kick a field goal that widened the gap to six, which completely changed Maryland’s approach as it got the ball one final time.

Once again Maryland made its way down the field through the Mountaineer defense, getting themselves down to the WVU 35 with 1:20 to play, but instead of being able to go for position and a tying field goal, they had to play for a touchdown.

Faced with a third-and-8, quarterback Danny O’Brien thought he had a receiver breaking open on a slant and went for him, only to have safety Eain Smith cut in front and make an interception, ending the comeback.

The Mountaineers had entered the game without having taken the ball away from the opposition this year, but they had three interceptions ... interestingly enough, one each by the three safeties — Smith, Darwin Cook and Terence Garvin, who ran his first college interception back for a touchdown 37 yards for a WVU score.

In many ways, this was a game that defied belief, perhaps a trademark game under the Holgorsen regime.

WVU had 27 first downs, Maryland 29. The two teams combined to run 167 plays, good for 957 yards. WVU threw 49 passes and completed 36, Smith reaching a career high with 388 yards.

Oddly, only one was for a touchdown.

For what is believed to be the first time in school history, three receivers caught passes for more than 100 yards. Tavon Austin had 11 receptions, second most in school history, for 122 yards; Bailey caught eight for 113; and Ivan McCartney eight for 101.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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