TCU gambles, Mountaineers lose
MORGANTOWN - The good news for West Virginia Saturday was that its defense finally showed up. The bad news was that it got little help from the Mountaineer offense and as a result couldn't finish things in regulation and overtime.
The result? Another ugly loss, once again with the everlasting image that of opposing wide receivers running free when stopping them mattered most.
In a game in which West Virginia's defense forced three turnovers, nine punts and six three-and-outs, TCU still was able to complete a ridiculous 94-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 88 seconds to play, then used a trick play and a gambling two-point conversion in the second overtime to Beat the Mountaineers, 39-38.
It was WVU's third straight loss - the first such streak in eight years - and came before a student-light crowd of just 52,322 at Mountaineer Field.
"TCU made more plays than we did,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after his team, once unbeaten and ranked No. 5, fell to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big 12. "We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and we failed to do so on all three sides of the ball, coaches and players included.''
Indeed, unlike WVU's last two losses - by a combined 104-28 to Texas Tech and Kansas State - the Mountaineers had more than their fair share of opportunities to win this one. They led 24-14 in the third quarter and 31-24 with just over three minutes to play when Tavon Austin returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown.
They also had a field goal to win it in overtime and had it blocked, but still took a 38-31 lead one play later when Geno Smith hit Stedman Bailey on a 25-yard TD pass to open the second overtime.
But each time a defense which had played so well for so long folded at just the wrong time. The final straws came when wide receiver Brandon Carter threw an end-around pass to a wide-open tight end Corey Fuller one play after the Bailey touchdown in overtime, then quarterback Trevone Boykin completed a low pass to Josh Boyce for the winning two-point conversion.
TCU wasn't required to go for two on the play - that rule doesn't kick in until the third overtime - but the Horned Frogs gambled anyway and won.
"I'm one of those people who believes when you play someone on the road you have to go take ball games,'' TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the decision to go for the win-or-lose conversion. "If you just play around and see what happens, you get things like the [Austin] punt return.''
For a while it looked like that punt return would be the difference. It came with the score deadlocked at 24 and each team coming off of two straight short, failed offensive series. That's when Austin, who also caught 11 passes for 101 yards, fielded a punt at his own 24, made a few moves in the middle of the field and broke open down the left sideline for a 31-24 lead with 3:18 to play.
"I knew someone had to make a play,'' said Austin, who now has five kick and punt return touchdowns in his career. "I thought that was going to be it.''
And it would have been had West Virginia's offense been able to do anything. The WVU defense, which mixed new starters Cecil Level and Ishmael Banks into the secondary, forced another quick three-and-out and the Mountaineers got the ball back with 2:31 to play near midfield. One first down would have salted the game away.
They didn't get it, punting back to TCU with 2:07 left after the Frogs used all three of their time outs. And on the first play from the 15, Josh Francis sacked Boykin back to the 6.
But then on second-and-19 from there, Boyce was chucked at the line by Banks. He went around Banks - out of bounds, but legally since he was knocked out by a defender - and Banks let him go. When no safety picked him up, Boyce was all alone in the secondary. He easily caught Boykin's pass and outran everyone to the end zone to tie the score at 31 with 88 seconds to play.
"It was just a busted coverage,'' said defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who also found himself in a new position calling defenses from the press box instead of the field. "We'd done the things we needed to do. We played well. But we didn't finish the game.''
West Virginia managed to get across midfield on a desperation drive after that, but gambled with a throw into the end on third down and didn't complete the pass. Tyler Bitancurt missed a 55-yard field goal with 13 seconds to play to send the game into overtime.
When TCU missed a field goal in the first OT, Bitancurt had a chance to win it, but his 36-yarder was blocked. That set up the second overtime and the scores by each team on back-to-back plays, followed by the winning two-point conversion.
How well did WVU's defense play? Well, TCU had 405 total yards, but 119 of those came on those last two touchdowns. Until then the Mountaineers had given up just one real scoring drive - 13 plays and 78 yards in the first quarter. TCU also scored on a one-play drive, a 31-yard Boykin pass to Boyce after a Smith interception and a penalty, and got another touchdown when Bitancurt couldn't handle a low snap on a punt and Dominic Merka picked it up and ran 15 yards for a score.
The WVU offense, meanwhile, seems still stuck in neutral. Smith completed 32 of 54 passes for 260 yards. He had the touchdowns to Bailey and J.D. Woods, but Woods had to make like a defensive back to take the ball away from TCU safety Elisha Olabode.
Bailey didn't start, apparently because he's been injured, but tailback Shawne Alston did play, carrying just four times for 11 yards and a touchdown.
The offense really generated just two touchdowns on its own, drives of 67 and 66 yards, the second including a 43-yard Austin run with a jet-sweep pass for a touchdown. Another score was set up by a botched punt by TCU that Nana Kyeremeh recovered at the 9.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.