Nothing easy for WVU vs. Terps
MORGANTOWN - As it turns out, perhaps none of this is quite as easy as West Virginia made it look the past three games.
Oh, the Mountaineers are still winning. Geno Smith is still breaking records and throwing touchdowns. Tavon Austin continues to amaze just about everyone. Shoot, even Darwin Cook and Doug Rigg are still at it, teaming up to score game-changing defensive touchdowns.
But after Maryland refused to roll over and play dead like Clemson and Marshall and James Madison before it, it's apparent that West Virginia is still going to have to work from start to finish to win games.
"Everything we were doing out there seemed hard,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Maybe we'd just been spoiled for the last three games with the success that we've had.''
There was certainly nothing easy about this one, a 31-21 win over Maryland Saturday afternoon at Mountaineer Field. A crowd of 58,504 watched the No. 8 Mountaineers jump out to a 14-0 lead and never trail, but they also saw a team that for the first time this season wasn't able to put an opponent away.
It wasn't until Smith and Austin combined on a 34-yard touchdown pass with 8:18 to play and gave WVU a 31-14 lead that the Mountaineers could breathe fairly easily. And even then, Maryland scored again in two quick plays and didn't completely run out of hope until failing to convert a fourth down with 41/2 minutes to play.
But perhaps that's a good thing. After all, West Virginia begins Big 12 play in a week and little figures to be easy there. So getting a taste of adversity now can only be good preparation.
"I'd rather have a game like this than a blowout,'' said Rigg, the junior linebacker whose 51-yard fumble return started Saturday's scoring. "It just shows what we're in for against BCS teams. And we needed that.''
How difficult was this? Well, consider that Smith, the presumed Heisman Trophy frontrunner, threw for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and broke pretty much the only Marc Bulger record that was left on the WVU books - career passing attempts. Then factor in Austin, who zoomed past Jock Sanders' record for career receptions (206) with 13 for 179 yards and three scores.
And toss in this, too: West Virginia's defense reached its goal of creating three turnovers and scored when Cook sacked and stripped Maryland quarterback Perry Hills and Riggs scooped the ball up and ran it in - just the opposite of the game-changing play in the Orange Bowl when Rigg caused a fumble and Cook ran it back.
And yet with all of that going right, West Virginia still wasn't able to pull away. When Smith wasn't throwing for all those yards and touchdowns, he was being sacked (twice) or pressured, threw more incompletions (13) than in the first two games combined (9), and was simply off his game. The running game, with Shawne Alston sidelined by a thigh bruise, was awful (25 carries for 25 yards); Stedman Bailey was, for once, less than spectacular; and the tackling by the defense was shoddy, at best.
And yet there it was - a 10-point win in a game in which the Mountaineers never trailed. Holgorsen, for his part, chalked it up to resiliency.
"One thing that you've got to do - whether it's offense or defense or special teams - is when you face adversity, you have to have guys who can fight through that,'' he said. "And we did. Otherwise we'd be sitting here with a loss. We were good enough to win and we found a way to win. I give our guys credit for that.''
While fighting through adversity might be the stylistic reason for the win, the concrete reason was a bit more grounded - the turnovers. In addition to Rigg's fumble return, Cook forced another one in the secondary that Terence Garvin recovered early in the fourth quarter that was perhaps just as crucial. Maryland was eating up big chunks of yardage on a drive while trailing just 24-14 when Cook stripped the ball from Marcus Leak at the end of a 28-yard gain. Austin's TD that made it 31-14 came on the possession that resulted from that turnover.
WVU's third forced turnover came on that failed fourth-down play with 4:31 to play when Wes Tonkery intercepted Hills way downfield on a pass he probably should have just batted down. It cost the Mountaineers 39 yards of field position, but at that point it didn't much matter.
"In all my years of coaching I've never seen a stat line as even as that,'' Holgorsen said after seeing his team gain 363 yards, average 5.3 yards per play and gain 19 first downs, while Maryland had posted 351, 5.4 and 18 in the same three categories. "The one exception is turnovers.''
Indeed, after watching his freshman quarterback Hills (20 of 29 for 305 yards, three TDs) and freshman receiver Stefon Diggs (three catches for 113 yards and three scores) light up WVU's defense, Maryland coach Randy Edsall lamented the same thing.
"I'm disappointed that we made some of the errors that we made that didn't allow us to have an opportunity toward the end of the game,'' Edsall said. "We have to do a better job of securing the ball and make sure we cut down on penalties and sacks."
Hills was sacked five times (by Josh Francis twice, along with Cook, Karl Joseph and Pat Miller). The Terps weren't penalized much, but one - for an illegal formation - wiped out a first down that eventually led to facing that fourth-and-21 that all but ended the game.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1