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Defenseless heartbreaker for WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -West Virginia's football team found unique new ways to recharge a flailing offense Saturday night. The Mountaineers also seemed to shore up most of their special teams issues, as well.

The defense? Well, 10 games into the season that's apparently a lost cause. As a result, WVU's losing streak has now neatly come to mirror its season-opening win streak.

Yes, it was exceptionally dramatic the way it all played out. West Virginia rallied from game-long deficits to take two leads over Oklahoma late in the game relying on the rushing - yes, rushing - of Tavon Austin and the pass catching of Stedman Bailey.

But giving up big plays almost on cue as Oklahoma needed them, the Mountaineers gave away every one of those advantages and lost 50-49 to the Sooners in front of a student-light but nonetheless noisy crowd of 50,238 at Mountaineer Field.

The difference on the scoreboard was Landry Jones' 5-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills with just 24 seconds to play. But the real difference was West Virginia's inability again to stop any opponent's offense. Jones - one of the top five passers in NCAA history already - broke his own career high with 554 yards. He completed 38 of 51 passes and threw for six touchdowns.

"They made one more play than we did,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.

The loss was the fifth in a row for WVU (5-5, 2-5 Big 12), which had opened the season 5-0 and climbed into the top five of the national rankings. It is West Virginia's first five-game losing streak since Don Nehlen's 1986 team lost six straight and finished 4-7.

The Mountaineers still need to win one of their final two games in order to become bowl eligible. They have a road game at Iowa State Friday and then finish at home against Kansas on Dec. 1.

Despite the loss, several bowls still seem very interested, including the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

"The kids played hard. How many losses like this do we have to go through,'' asked Holgorsen. "I don't know. We've got two games left. Hopefully we can get back out there and get to work and try to come up with a couple of wins. It's a tough loss, but we have to regroup.''

Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1) continued its march toward a potential BCS bowl berth. The Sooners' only losses this season are to Kansas State and Notre Dame, and K-State's loss to Baylor Saturday night opened the door for a potential Big 12 title for the Sooners. OU is in position to earn an at-large berth no matter what happens, but if the Sooners win out and Kansas State loses to Texas OU would get the league's automatic berth.

How ineffective was West Virginias's defense? Well, try this on for size. West Virginia, with Austin running wild, piled up a staggering 778 yards of total offense, the most ever surrendered by the Sooners and 13 yards away from the NCAA record for yards gained by a losing team (791 by Nevada against San Jose State iin 2001). Yet the Mountaineers couldn't win because the defense couldn't get stops when it mattered. Oklahoma had 662 total yards.

In so many ways, this West Virginia loss mirrored those of the past few weeks, not the lopsided earlier ones to Texas Tech and Kansas State. In those, the Mountaineers never had a chance. In recent weeks, though, they have been competitive, only to be undone by embarrassing failures of the defense.

That's the way this one was. Austin provided an amazing spark to the offense, lining up as a tailback on more than a third of the team's offensive plays. He was given the ball 21 times and gained 344 yards, a school record in his first appearance as a running back since high school.

Combined with his pass catching and returns, Austin smashed the school's single-game all-purpose yardage record with 572 yards, just 6 yards shy of the NCAA record. Garrett Ford had held the old school mark for 47 years, or since gaining 365 in the 1965 Backyard Brawl against Pitt. He also destroyed the Big 12 record, which had been 375 yards.

Bailey had another huge game, too, with 13 catches for 205 yards and four touchdowns. Oklahoma had given up only three passing touchdowns all season. Geno Smith completed 20 of 35 passes for 320 yards.

But no matter what Austin and the offense did, the defense was consistent in giving it away again. After falling behind 10-0 at the start, West Virginia drew even or close time and again. And each time the defense all but surrendered:

  • After WVU tied the game at 10 on a fourth-down, 1-yard run by Andrew Buie in the second quarter, Oklahoma scored in two plays, the second a short Jones pass that Jalen Saunders turned into three missed tackles and a 76-yard touchdown.
  • After narrowing a two-TD deficit to 24-17 just before halftime on Smith's 33-yard bomb to Bailey, it took OU all of four plays to boost the lead back up to 14 at the break. This time a defense that had to that point held tailback Damien Williams to 23 yards on11 carries, allowed Williams to run untouched off tackle 48 yards for the score that made it 31-17 at the half.
  • When Austin went 74 yards on the second play of the second half to cut the deficit to 31-24, Oklahoma immediately went 80 yards in five plays, the first a short pass that Sterling Shepard turned into a 52-yard gain. The touchdown, an 11-yard pass to Stills, pushed the margin back to 38-24.
  • After West Virginia had used a 17-play drive to score once and more Austin magic (a 54-yard run) that led to an 8-yard TD pass to Bailey to give WVU an improbable 43-38 lead with 7:12 to go, the defense again allowed the Sooners to march down the field, this time 79 yards in seven plays capped by a 7-yard third-down pass to a wide-open Stills to put OU up 44-43 with 4:10 to play.
  • And then finally, after Austin's 47-yard run and another touchdown bomb to Bailey - this one 40 yards - Oklahoma simply marched down the field 54 yards in six plays for the winning score. To its credit, the defense made it harder, forcing Jones to go to a fourth-and-3 at the WVU 5 before connecting with Stills again for the winning score, but even that had its obvious down side.
  • Had the defense allowed OU to score quicker, its offense would have had more time to counter. But with only 21 seconds to go after the kickoff, the closest the Mountaineers could get was midfield and a Hail Mary pass toward the end zone was short and incomplete.

    "The kids have practiced so well the last three weeks and it showed,'' defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said, referring to a handful of key stops that allowed WVU to remain close. "I know we gave up 50, but in spurts we played well.''

    But the spurts were never long enough.

    "We just have to come back in high spirits because we still have two more games to play,'' said Austin. "And we still have plenty to pay for.''

    Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

     

     


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