By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The deterioration of what once was a dream season into a nightmare for West Virginia University continued Saturday when Texas Christian University pulled off a trio of miracles to steal a 39-38 victory in double overtime from the Mountaineers before 52,322 stunned fans.
A five-game winning streak now has become WVU’s first three-game losing streak since 2004.
“It falls on me (as the head coach),” Dana Holgorsen said, “What we’ve done the last three games offensively is totally unacceptable.”
Ranked No. 5 in the nation a month ago, WVU was beaten 49-14 by Texas Tech and 55-14 by Kansas State before an off-week last week, a time in which the Mountaineers did show marked improvement on what had been one of the nation’s worst defenses.
But even with that TCU had too many tricks up its sleeve for West Virginia to overcome, especially when the Mountaineers were struggling in running the ball and in their special-teams play.
In fact, were it not for a dynamic performance by wide receiver and kick returner Tavon Austin, this would not have been much of a game at all.
In the first half, Austin tied the game at 14-all with an electrifying 43-yard touchdown off one of those “jet passes” from quarterback Geno Smith, the little touch pass he throws as Austin runs in motion in front of him.
On this one, Austin went to the left sideline, got himself hemmed in, found an escape route, made a move and went clear across field, scoring in the right corner of the end zone. Credited with just the 43 yards, he ran clearly more than 100 yards for the score.
Then, with 3:19 remaining and the score tied at 24, TCU punted to the Mountaineers, a punt Austin gathered in at his own 26. Again he wiggled and waggled his way into the clear and took the ball into the end zone for the go-ahead TD.
Now it’s true that the Mountaineer defense, in the past, would never be expected to stop TCU in this situation, but things were different with this defense.
To begin with, coordinator Joe DeForest was taken off the field and put in the coaching box to make his calls.
“It was calm, surreal up there. Twenty-three years of coaching and I never was up there,” he said. “You can see the whole field, everything. You can make corrections.”
The result was a better plan on defense, but there also was some changes in personnel, Cecil Level, out of WVU Tech, moving from safety to cornerback and having a huge game and freshman safety Karl Joseph hammering people with nine tackles.
In the first half they forced five punts, as many as they have forced in the previous four games. By the time the game ended the Horned Frogs had punted nine times and lost two fumbles and thrown an interception.
But the WVU offense struggled far too much.
“They tackled a lot better than we blocked. They whipped us up front. The O-line played bad. The receivers didn’t make many plays. Geno was probably as bad as he’s been since he’s been here,” Holgorsen said.
So it was that TCU remained in contention after Austin’s punt return and the first miracle was about to happen.
Quarterback Trevone Boykin found himself backed up at his own 6 and under pressure, the same kind of pressure that produced three sacks by WVU.
This time he escaped. As Josh Boyce ran his pass route down the sideline he was knocked out of bounds and, since he was pushed, he was still an eligible receiver. If only the secondary had realized that, but they didn’t and he ran free, was hit by Boykin, and it went for a 94-yard touchdown.
The first overtime was a comedy of errors, neither team scoring, TCU saving the game when Jason Verrett blocked Tyler Bitancurt’s field goal, part of a strange day for Bitancurt, who hit a 52-yard field goal, missed three others, punted for a 39.5 average and then failed to field a bad snap on a punt that set up a TCU touchdown.
On the first play of the second overtime, Smith hit Stedman Bailey with a scoring pass, his 15th TD catch of the year, to give the Mountaineers a 38-31 lead.
But Patterson had another trick to pull, this a reverse pass from Brandon Carter to Corey Fuller for the score.
“It was a trick play. They tricked us. It’s like magic,” DeForest said.
Now TCU coach Gary Patterson called time out and opted to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Boykin rolled right, threw toward Boyce who went down to grass-top level and made the catch, a catch that withstood the unblinking eye of replay for the two-point conversion.
Holgorsen could not argue the call.
“I thought he caught it. They (replay officials) looked at it. So I guess he did,” he said.
But that wasn’t what beat WVU. The fact that they could not run the ball, gaining just 78 yards on 35 carries, 28 of the yards coming on scrambles by Geno Smith, made WVU one-dimensional against a team that was willing to give them the run.
Why can’t WVU run?
“I don’t know,” Smith said. “We obviously understand we have to run the ball. We have to be a varied offense to be good. The games we excelled in and done great in we ran the ball and passed the ball well and kept the defense on its toes.
“Now lately, teams have disrespected the run game, totally disregarding it, putting just one linebacker in the box, sometimes even when we have two and three running backs in the game.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter@bhertzel.