By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is perhaps unfair to look to the West Virginia University offense as providing the difference in Saturday’s crucial, heart-stopping 24-21 victory over Big East frontrunner Cincinnati, a victory built on defense and a last-second blocked field goal by safety Eain Smith.
Yet when you look back on what turned the tide in this game, you come to things the Mountaineer offense did.
Certainly it was not a great performance, accounting for most of the 14 WVU penalties and rushing for 32 yards in 32 carries, but that hardly mattered.
See, when the offense had to do something, it did it. True, it was in the position only because of the defense, which not only stymied Cincinnati’s high-flying offense but sent quarterback Zach Collaros, probably the Big East’s second-best QB behind WVU’s Geno Smith, to the sideline on crutches when he was roughed up in the end zone by Bruce Irvin and Co.
The way the defense stood tall when it had to allowed the offense to have its moments, and that usually means Smith, the quarterback, and wide receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.
Smith’s play was stellar, hitting 29 of 43 for 372 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. That he was sacked five times was not his fault and may even have spoken to an offensive line that probably should have accounted for even more than the penalties it had, and five of the linemen had them, missing only center Joey Madsen.
But Smith was more pleased with the way he took control of the leadership of the team again, as something was necessary with Coach Dana Holgorsen preaching that the team needed the three E’s — excitement, energy and emotion.
That comes from leadership, and that is where Smith has to excel.
“In the Syracuse game I wasn’t the leader I usually am. I was out there pouting a little bit. I looked myself directly in the eye. You have to be a leader; you can’t be a frontrunner. When the going got tough out on the field I was right there rooting my teammates on,” he said.
This was going to be his team on this day.
“When we got the ball, I told myself I was going to make the play and I urged my teammates to move forward. We didn’t put our heads down. We kept going,” he said, adding that isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
“Sometimes the pressures of football wear down on people. You kind of get afraid to make a play knowing your coach might chew you out or you have 100,000 fans saying you suck, but you can’t worry about that. You just have to go make a play,” he said.
And when the game started with one of those “here we go again” feelings, WVU going three and out and losing 8 yards in the process, then letting Cincinnati come right down the field in three plays, Isaiah Pead rushing 40 yards for a touchdown, Smith had to respond.
He did so in 51 seconds, making a marvelous deep throw to Bailey, who had run an equally marvelous pass route, for a 59-yard touchdown.
Instead of being down on the scoreboard and down emotionally, WVU was geared up, players bouncing around as if there were a trampoline on the sideline.
Before the half was over, WVU had built a 17-7 lead with the sack of Collaros resulting in his injury and a fumble that was recovered by Julian Miller in the end zone.
Cincinnati had to go to backup quarterback Munchie Legaux — that is not a misprint — and he led the Bearcats on a comeback that saw them grab a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, much of it being part of the 144 yards Legaux threw for the 77 he ran for.
Now WVU needed a response, and Smith, Bailey and Tavon Austin had the answers on an amazing 74-yard drive that took 12 plays, used up 4:27 and during which they faced problem after problem.
The first came when they were looking at a third and nine at the Cincinnati 44, Smith hitting Bailey for 13 yards and a first down that kept the drive alive.
Three plays later it was third and 15 at the Cincinnati 36 and Smith found Austin coming across the middle, streaking to the sideline for 23 yards and yet another first down.
“The one to Tavon, that was all the blazing speed of Tavon Austin,” Smith said. “People underestimate how good he is. He would be the best player in any conference. He’s one of those guys; put it in his hands and he can make anyone miss. It’s something we cherish around here because you don’t get a player like him very often.”
“It’s just his blazing speed. He’d be the best receiver in any conference,” Bailey said.
The drive culminated in Shawne Alston’s 1-yard TD run to give the Mountaineers a 24-21 lead, which would be the final score only because they blocked a gimme field goal in the final second, the block belonging to Eain Smith.
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NOTES: Both Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey surpassed 100 receiving yards with 126 and 104, respectively ... Travis Bell made his first start ever at safety for the Mountaineers in place of Terence Garvin, out with a head injury ... QB Geno Smith has thrown at TD pass in 13 straight games.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.