Timely turnaround for WVU
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - For the longest time Saturday afternoon, West Virginia looked a lot like it did a week ago against Syracuse. And that, of course, was not good.
Keep in mind, though, the opponent on this day was Rutgers, and the Mountaineers always figure out a way to beat Rutgers.
This time it was by doing a defensive about-face in the second half and then getting enough offense to make a difference. The result was a 41-31 win in awful snow and cold and wind at RU's High Point Solutions Stadium, WVU's 17th straight over the Scarlet Knights.
The win was a much-needed one for the No. 25 Mountaineers (6-2, 2-1 Big East), who for a while looked in danger of a repeat of last week's 49-23 embarrassment at Syracuse. The Mountaineer defense gave up 31 first-half points and trailed 31-21.
But that defense did a 180-degree turn in the second half, shutting down Rutgers (5-3, 2-2) and shutting the Knights out. WVU scored a touchdown early in the second half to get close, then two in the final seven minutes of the game to put it away.
Rutgers gained just 165 yards in the second half in front of what was left of a crowd of 47,303 that wasn't driven home by the weather.
Adjustments? Well, yes, there were a few of those. Linebacker Najee Goode said the Mountaineers tweaked their run defense a bit, and RU did gain just 45 rushing yards in the second half after getting 101 in the first.
But more than anything it was effort, the same thing coach Dana Holgorsen has talked about since last weekend's debacle at the Carrier Dome. That and overcoming adversity.
"We've been talking about adversity all week. Adversity happens in every game you play. We got challenged,'' a soaked Holgorsen said after a game that lasted nearly four hours in constant snow showers. "I was proud of how we went out on all three sides of the ball [after halftime]. We played harder than they did.
"Not to take anything away from Rutgers because their effort was tremendous and we knew it would be, but we felt like we went out and outplayed them in the second half.''
West Virginia actually wasn't outplayed that badly in the first. Rutgers took advantage of a strong wind, field position and some breaks because of the wet and cold in the first quarter, scoring a field goal after a 26-yard punt out of the end zone into the wind and a touchdown after West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith simply dropped the ball deep in his own end of the field and Rutgers recovered at the 11.
Even the TD, a 14-yard pass from freshman Gary Nova to Mohamed Sanu on third-and-13, would have been reduced to a field goal try had Sanu not run through a tackle by Keith Tandy just beyond the line of scrimmage.
But Rutgers did score three other times in the half - once on a 45-yard pass to Mark Harrison behind Tandy, another after cornerback Pat Miller was twice called for pass interference and a third on the only real scoring drive of the day. That 74-yard, 11-play march was capped by Jawan Jamison's 18-yard run on a fourth-and-1 play to make it 31-21.
But after that, nothing. The Knights had a chance to kick a field goal early in the fourth quarter while up 31-28, but they faked it and tried a pass into the end zone that Darwin Cook broke up. West Virginia then drove 78 yards in 11 plays and took the lead for good on Smith's improvised 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal with 6:18 to play.
"That was good,'' Holgorsen said of Cook's crucial breakup in the end zone on that fake field goal. "I think it gave our guys a little bit of life.''
West Virginia's offense actually had little spurts of life all day. It was just difficult to tell when they might come.
Smith completed 20-of-31 passes for just 219 yards in the snow, but the Mountaineers got plenty of big plays. Shawne Alston, using his size and speed on the slick turf, gained 110 yards and scored twice, while Tavon Austin scored on and 80-yard run and a 20-yard screen pass. Stedman Bailey again did his part with a spectacular end zone catch for a score. But that came early in the third quarter to make it 31-28 and it would be more than halfway through the fourth before the Mountaineers were able to strike again.
They finally put it away a few plays after Smith's touchdown when Nova did exactly what Smith had done earlier in the game and dropped the ball in the pocket without being touched. It was Miller's second fumble recovery of the game. West Virginia also got two interceptions from Brodrick Jenkins, who started in place of Pat Miller but was quickly replaced. Jenkins made both his thefts as a nickel back and WVU won the turnover battle 4-1 against a Rutgers team that was fifth in the country in turnover margin.
The bottom line, though, was that West Virginia's defense did that about face. By halftime it had given up 80 points in the previous six quarters and was beginning to look like it couldn't stop anyone. And then all of a sudden it once again seemed like the same group that just two weeks ago was ranked No. 16 in the country in total yards.
"I think we responded better than we did last week,'' Smith said, talking about everyone and not just the offense. "We grew up a lot today.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.