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WVU notebook: Mountaineers dug a hole in first half

MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia's poor first half Saturday night against No. 2 LSU was what put the Mountaineers in a hole from which they couldn't dig out. And it was equal parts offense, defense and special teams responsible for the mess.

It wasn't that either the offense or defense flat-out stunk, but both made critical errors at the most inopportune times. The offense turned the ball over three times in the first half and two of those were turned into scores. And the defense actually played fairly well except on third down. But those third downs were brutal.

The same turnover mistakes plagued the offense in the second half. And special teams play got even worse. So it's no wonder the Mountaineers came out on the short end of a 47-21 score.

"If we don't turn the ball over it's a different ballgame,'' said receiver Tavon Austin. "But two of those were on me, so I take the blame.''

The offensive miscues aren't new. Yes, the Mountaineers went two games without a turnover, but then had three last week at Maryland, although two of those seemed like freak accidents.

Against the Tigers, though, it was a near epidemic. West Virginia moved the ball for 533 yards against one of the country's best defenses. But Brad Starks was stripped of the ball after one reception and another pass bounced off of Austin and was intercepted by Brandon Taylor in the first half. The worst, though, was just before the half when Tyrann Mathieu blitzed and batted a Smith short pass intended for Austin -- that's the second one Austin took the blame for, although he never touched it -- and then caught the deflection himself and returned it 19 yards to the WVU 1-yard line.

Instead of West Virginia potentially driving for a field goal or a touchdown to cut into a 20-7 deficit, it was 27-7 and the game seemed all but over. And then in the fourth quarter Smith gave away what was certainly West Virginia's final chance when he fumbled the ball near midfield with the score 40-21.

"It's a read play and I thought I could get the ball to Tavon,'' said Smith, who set school records with his 38 completions, 65 attempts and 463 yards.

He couldn't, and because of that the Mountaineers dug a hole from which they never dug out.

"[Mathieu] was their best player the first three games,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We knew he was going to do that. And that's on Geno to get the ball over him.''

 

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    Special teams, meanwhile, were just awful.

    The worst was punting -- both the punt and punt return. But that one kickoff return -- Morris Claiborne's 99-yard runback after WVU closed the gap to 27-21 late in the third -- was lethal.

    Still, the punt team woes are likely the ones that will be addressed first.

    Corey Smith shanked his first punt out of bounds for 14 yards. His third went just 32 yards and even rolled backwards. Smith did manage to get off two boomers -- 50 and 58 yards -- but both were returned well. And his first punt of the second half was also shanked out of bounds for just 27 yards.

    Holgorsen admitted afterward that he would probably begin looking at other possibilities as a punter.

    "Hitting a 60-yarder and then hitting a 10-yarder,'' Holgorsen said. "That's not going to get it done.''

    Just as bad, though, was the punt return unit. Three times in the first half Austin either elected to allow punts drop or couldn't get to them. The result was that all three times the Tigers downed the ball at or inside the 5-yard line. West Virginia was forced to begin three of its first-half drive at its own 3, 4 and 5.

    When Austin did finally fair catch a punt -- at his own 11 -- the crowd cheered derisively. Then then LSU punted twice in the third quarter and Austin fair caught one and let another roll. Those were downed at the 8 and the 10.

    "I thought they were heading toward the corners [and out of bounds]. That's the way they were going,'' Austin said of the ones he let drop. "I have to do a better job.''

     

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    Bob Huggins was invited onto the ESPN set for the final few minutes of College Gameday Saturday morning to join Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit in predicting a handful of games.

    The WVU basketball coach had a state element to all of his picks -- Alabama because of Monongah's Nick Saban, Florida State because of Clarksburg's Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M over Oklahoma State because OSU no longer has now-WVU coach Dana Holgorsen.

    Naturally, he chose West Virginia over LSU, too.

    His best line, though, was in reference to Pitt's decision to go to the ACC. He picked Notre Dame to beat the Panthers because "I always go with the Big East team.''

     

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    BRIEFLY: At least twice during the game, LSU defensive linemen wound up on the ground behind the line of scrimmage and had to be helped off the field while West Virginia was successfully running a hurry-up offense.

    That's the kind of scenario that Holgorsen has complained about at some of his past jobs -- coaches perhaps faking injuries to stop the game. Whether that was what LSU was doing, the crowd thought it was when they booed the injured player the second times it happened, early in the third quarter.

    For the record, though, West Virginia scored on both of those drives -- two plays after the first injury and one after the second.

    | Josh Francis started his first game in a West Virginia uniform, replacing Casey Vance at linebacker. Francis is a junior college transfer who was widely thought of as an instant starter, but it took him a little extra time to learn the defensive scheme.

    | West Virginia's loss snapped an 18-game, home non-conference win streak. The Mountaineers will try to start a new one next week against Bowling Green, which is 3-1 after beating winless Miami (Ohio), 37-23 on Saturday. The Falcons also own wins over Idaho and Morgan State and lost a week ago at home to Wyoming.

    LSU, meanwhile, won for the 36th straight time against non-conference opponents during the regular season. The Tigers' last in-season loss outside the SEC was against Virginia Tech in the 2002 season opener.

    | West Virginia went into the game having not yet committed a pre-snap penalty on offense. That was blown out of the water, though, by two delay of games and a handful of procedure penalties.

    Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com

     


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