The numbers game
MORGANTOWN - Question of the day: In what universe is it possible that a West Virginia defense can allow an opposing quarterback to throw for 581 yards and five touchdowns and an opposing receiver to catch 17 passes for 314 yards and still win?
Answer: Welcome to the Big 12. And get used to it.
No, they all aren't going to be this ridiculous. These weren't video game numbers. It was beyond that. Call it Monopoly Football, where the numbers just don't seem to relate well to reality.
But after just one game in the Big 12, it is more than apparent that few of the old rules apply, especially where Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and the West Virginia offense are concerned.
These aren't misprints: Smith completed 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards and eight touchdowns, Bailey caught 13 passes for 303 yards and five scores and Austin grabbed 14 for 215 yards Saturday as No. 9 West Virginia outlasted No. 25 Baylor 70-63 in the Mountaineers' debut in the Big 12.
A few more: West Virginia gained 807 total yards, Baylor 700. West Virginia set school records for both yards gained and yards allowed - in the same game. There were six 100-yard receivers between the two teams. The scoring records are almost too numerous to count.
Yet with 99 seconds left to play, West Virginia still had to convert a third-and-1 near midfield to seal the win. It seemed only fitting that needing one yard, Dustin Garrison ran for 17. Excess was, after all, the theme of the day.
In truth, though, the game was merely everything that most had predicted. The only catch is that seldom do games turn out exactly as expected. This was an exception.
Afterward, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen admitted that while it would be wise to get used to games of a similarly offensive-minded vein, even this one was an exception to what will be the rule.
"I've been telling you how it is,'' said Holgorsen, who has an intimate knowledge of the league after spending much of the last dozen years in it. "Not every Big 12 game is like this. Not every Big 12 offense is like this. Not every game is going to be like this.
"But this was a situation where both offenses were playing at a pretty high level.''
Indeed. And it became apparent very quickly that no lead would ever quite be safe.
For instance, West Virginia trailed for much of the first half, but never by more than a touchdown. And each time the Mountaineers did fall behind it was only a matter of a few Smith completions to square things again.
West Virginia never trailed for the game's final 34:54, but also never felt safe. Consider that the Mountaineers took their first lead at 35-28 on a 2-yard fade pass from Smith to Bailey with just 29 seconds to play in the first half, but couldn't even hold that. Baylor quarterback Nick Florence (he of the 581 yards and five TDs on 29-of-47 passing) simply went out and threw a 67-yard touchdown to Lanear Sampson. Bingo, it's 35-35 at the break, prompting Baylor coach Art Briles to say in a TV interview running off the field that it was a 0-0 ballgame again.
Well, not quite.
And not even when West Virginia opened up a three-touchdown lead, 56-35, in the third quarter did a lead even feel semi-comfortable. All it took was Baylor forcing one three-and-out by the WVU offense and the Bears were able to score three of the next four touchdowns and make it 63-56 with still almost 11 minutes to play.
But that would be it because never again was either offense stopped. West Virginia made it 70-56 when Smith hit Bailey with a 39-yard touchdown pass after running five minutes off the clock. Baylor countered with a 10-play drive and a Florence TD pass to Terrance Williams (his 17th catch and 314th yard) to make it 70-63.
But with 3:08 left, Briles made perhaps a fatal error in judgment. On the way to allowing 807 yards and 10 touchdowns, he gambled that his defense - armed with three timeouts - could stop West Virginia one time and get the ball back, so he eschewed an on-side kick.
"If you do it there and don't get it, then basically the game is over,'' Briles said. "You play percentages. We played percentages there and it didn't work out.''
It didn't because J.D. Woods (career highs with 13 catches for 114 yards) made a spectacular one-handed grab of what Smith admitted was his worst pass of the day for one first down, then Garrison converted the third down shortly thereafter to seal the win.
And so a crowd of 60,012 - almost all of whom stayed to the end - went home happy. They had come to see an explosion of offense and saw even more than they bargained for. For the record, it was the highest-scoring game ever between two Top 25 teams and even the most points ever produced in a game involving even one Top 25 team, according the footballgeography.com
While it would be wise to get accustomed to the culture of such a shootout because they happen all the time in West Virginia's new conference, Holgorsen warned not to expect quite this level of offensive insanity each week. It's not likely to happen when the Mountaineers next play Saturday night at No. 12 Texas.
"I've been in this league going on 10 years now and it's the culture of the Big 12, but not everyone is like this,'' Holgorsen said. "It will be different next week. Texas has an unbelievable defense.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.