Mountaineers hang on
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Geno Smith sat in a tent outside West Virginia's locker room Saturday afternoon talking about momentum.
He seemed to have it down pretty well.
"If you play enough football and you're around it enough, you know when momentum is changing,'' the West Virginia quarterback said. "You can feel it. It just happens.''
Trouble is, as easy as it is to identify momentum shifts, it's just as hard to reverse them if you happen to be on the wrong end. West Virginia's offense never really managed it Saturday afternoon.
The Mountaineer defense, though, put a halt to Maryland's momentum just in the nick of time.
Eain Smith's interception of Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien just as the Terrapins seemed poised to cap a miraculous comeback saved West Virginia's 37-31 victory at Byrd Stadium.
The pick, at the WVU 13-yard line with only 73 seconds to play, managed to accomplish a lot. It kept the No. 18 Mountaineers (3-0) unbeaten heading into next Saturday's much-anticipated home game with No. 3 LSU. It salvaged a victory that West Virginia seemed assured of earning much earlier when it led 34-10. And it was at least a bit of redemption for a defense that played lights-out for much of the first half, but almost lights-off for most of the second.
But it did not erase the fact that these Mountaineers apparently still have a lot of work to do. After struggling to start well the first two games, they fixed that and then labored at the finish.
But at least in the immediate aftermath, coach Dana Holgorsen seemed pleased given that it was a win and, regardless of the circumstances, it came against a pretty good football team on the road.
"The biggest single thing we worked on this week in practice was hitting the field fast and starting with some excitement. We did that,'' Holgorsen said. "The second half, we did it on the first series on offense and the last series on defense and that was enough.
"It's football. It [a shift in momentum] happens. When you play a good football team, that stuff's going to happen.''
What happened to West Virginia on Saturday was stunningly bi-polar.
By late in the first half, the Mountaineers seemed on cruise control. Despite losing the ball twice on fumbles in the first half, they led 24-3 and Smith was on his way to a record-shattering day. Leading 27-10 at halftime, he had already completed 21-of-28 passes for 232 yards. By the end of the first drive of the third quarter, he was 25-of-33 for 297 yards and had just tossed a 34-yard scoring pass to Stedman Bailey to make the score 34-10.
By that point, the WVU defense was solid, too. At one point, O'Brien was 9-of-17 for 38 yards and two interceptions, one of which was returned 37 yards for a touchdown by safety Terence Garvin. After the Bailey score made it 34-10, Maryland drove to the Mountaineer 6, but failed on a fourth-down try and turned the ball over. That was midway through the third quarter, and it seemed like the final nail in the coffin.
"I don't expect anybody to quit,'' said Randy Edsall, the Maryland coach who is now 1-7 all-time against WVU, the first seven of those games while he coached Connecticut. "On a Randy Edsall-coached football team, there are never going to be any quitters.''
And the Terrapins didn't. What happened next was a momentum shift of the first order.
West Virginia, which would finish with 480 yards of total offense (388 passing), gained two first downs on its next three possessions. The Mountaineers punted twice and Smith threw his first interception of the season, a spectacular sideline grab by Dexter McDougle on a ball that bounced off of Ivan McCartney. A team that couldn't help but move the ball for 21/2 quarters and had three 100-yard receivers - Tavon Austin had 11 catches for 122 yards, Bailey eight for 113 and McCartney eight for 101 - suddenly couldn't get out of its own way.
"The only way to stop [that momentum shift] is to put together a string of plays and a drive and get back on track,'' Smith said. "But we couldn't do it.''
That opened the door for the Terps, who suddenly had no trouble against West Virginia's defense. Maryland, with O'Brien making clutch throws and running backs Davin Meggett and D.J. Adams running in wide-open spaces - drove 61 yards in five plays, 44 yards in seven (after the interception) and 66 yards in 12. In three possessions over 10 minutes, Maryland scored three times and suddenly that 34-10 rout was a 34-31 nail-biter. Nearly 101/2 minutes remained.
"It's a game of momentum and they had it,'' Holgorsen said. "I'm just glad we hung on. I think some guys showed some real leadership at the end.''
West Virginia hung on when its offense and defense did just enough, just in time. First, the offense chewed up almost six minutes and, although failing to score after getting first-and-goal at the 3, did get Tyler Bitancurt's third field goal to make it 37-31.
Maryland got the ball with 4:36 to play on its own 26 and seemed destined to score and win by the point spread, which was one. The Terps converted a fourth-and-1 at their own 35, then sliced easily down the field until facing third-and-8 at the WVU 35. The clock was ticking down past the 1:20 mark.
That's when O'Brien tried to hit a receiver on a post route at about the WVU 10. The ball was underthrown and Eain Smith stepped in front of it, made the interception and then tripped to the ground at the 14.
Game over. Finally.
Afterward, Holgorsen almost seemed at a loss for how to react to the game. He stood in that interview tent outside the locker room, interrupted first by the sound of Maryland's band marching by and then by Edsall's postgame press conference being piped over the stadium public address system. He forged on, though.
"It's a big win, right?'' Holgorsen said.
Yes. Geno Smith threw for a career-high 388 yards, completing 36-of-49 passes. The three 100-yard receivers is believed to be a school record. The running game wasn't great, but it was better, including the return of Shawne Alston as a short-yardage back. And the defense, while surrendering 477 yards (O'Brien finished 34-of-52 for 289 yards and three interceptions), made the one play that had to be made.
"We have to be able to finish,'' said Alston. "We didn't play four quarters, but we were good enough to come away with the win. But one half of football just won't do it, especially with LSU coming in next week.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.