By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
On a day fit more for the Iditarod than football, West Virginia University spent a half sledding straight downhill Saturday before turning it around in an inspired second half and beating Rutgers for the 17th consecutive time, 41-31.
Down by 10 at halftime and looking in danger of suffering a second straight road defeat, having been roughed up at Syracuse eight days earlier, the Mountaineers score 20 unanswered second-half points while their defense regrouped to pitch a shutout before 47,303 brave fans at High Point Solution Stadium.
The victory, capped by quarterback Geno Smith’s first career touchdown run but built upon the power running of Shawne Alston and the speed of Tavon Austin, was WVU’s 17th in a row over Rutgers, an opponent who will be none too sorry to see the Mountaineers split for the Big 12.
The weather conditions were difficult, to say the least, the temperature hovering around freezing at kickoff with 2 1/2 inches of snow having already fallen, the most ever to fall on New Jersey in October.
It was reported that 260,000 people in New Jersey were without power due to the freak snowstorm.
The snow would continue throughout the game, making footing treacherous at times and the football slippery, and reached a point that WVU found its return flight home from Newark Airport canceled due to the weather.
The weather could not stop Alston, who much of the time since Dana Holgorsen came in was odd man out. In the spring and summer camp he had a neck injury that didn’t let him take part in drills and head coach Holgorsen often was on him, but he persevered and battled his way into the rotation.
“It was definitely hard not being able to play spring and fall camp,” he said. “We have a lot of good backs. You have to keep fighting. I bring a different dimension because I’m a little bigger back.”
Being a bigger back seemed to make a difference with the bad footing. Rather than being skitterish, he went right at the defense and finished with a career-high 109 yards on 14 carries with two touchdowns, one a 52-yard burst.
“It was a slick surface, but at the same time you had to make one cut and go,” he said. “As long as you didn’t get too fancy it wasn’t bad.”
And normally with Alston, you don’t worry about him getting fancy.
“I have no fanciness at all,” he said.
It was Alston who got the Mountaineers off and running — and run they did, finishing the day with 223 rushing yards — by answering a Rutgers field goal with his 52-yard touchdown run behind a lead block by Matt Lindamood.
Right then you knew this would be a wild affair, and it was, as by the time the first half ended Austin had run a reverse 80 yards for a touchdown but Rutgers had managed to take a 10-point, 31-21 advantage into the warmth of the locker room.
The defense was being slapped around again as it had been the previous week at Syracuse, allowing 221 yards and those 31 points at the half, much of the yardage coming on power runs up the gut.
The locker room was not only warm, but sometimes hot.
“There were some choice words from a lot of people, including some players,” said Holgorsen, who certainly had his own choice words to offer.
Whatever was said should be bottled and sold to help defray travel costs in the Big 12, for it surely worked.
The defense in the second half gave up only 138 yards and not a point, although, in truth, they were helped by a rather strange and daring decision by Rutgers’ coach Greg Schiano, who has never beaten WVU.
Still leading by three points late in the game, he faced fourth down at the WVU 11. Rather than kicking a nearly sure field goal — nothing, of course, was sure on this day — he ran a fake. True, it should have worked, but Darwin Cook, the day’s defensive star with 11 tackles, broke it up.
That ignited the Mountaineers.
Smith, who completed 20 of 31 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, led WVU down the field to the Rutgers goal line. Then, on fourth down, he pulled down a potential pass and ran for the corner, diving in with 6:18 to play.
The lead was three points and it would not grow as Tyler Bitancurt, fresh from being named a Groza Award semifinalist, missed his second extra point in two weeks to give Rutgers a chance.
But the defense was now firing hard and wound up grabbing a fourth takeaway from the team that supposedly specialized in that department itself, and all of a sudden the sun was shining and they were poolside in Palm Beach, Fla.
At least that’s how they felt.
THE NOTEBOOK: WVU wide receiver Stedman Bailey made a spectacular, leaping TD catch, batting the ball to himself, but his record streak of consecutive 100-yard receiving games ended at five. ... WR Ivan McCartney left the game with a knee injury ... Doug Riggs, a New Jersey native, was back from a wrist injury and started at weak side linebacker in place of Casey Vance. ... QB Geno Smith has thrown at least one TD pass in 11 straight games ... Austin’s 80-yard score was WVU’s first TD run of 75 yards or more since Noel Devine scored an 88-yard TD against Pitt in 2009.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.