Score one for the defense
AMES, Iowa - Just when it looked like West Virginia's sixth straight defeat was going to be pinned on its defense, that group rose up when it mattered most.
It was enough to allow defensive coordinator Joe DeForest to sit down in a chair afterward, slip on the same ballcap he's worn after each of the Mountaineers' most recent losses and let out a sigh of relief.
"Relax,'' he said, echoing the one word across the front of that white hat with a broad grin spreading across his face. "Finally, it paid off.''
Well, barely. But at this point West Virginia will take it.
Safety Darwin Cook, injured and benched for much of the last month, forced a fumble as Iowa State was on the cusp of scoring the tying touchdown, Karl Joseph recovered in the end zone and the Mountaineers held on for a 31-24 win over the Cyclones Saturday at frigid Jack Trice Stadium.
The win not only enabled West Virginia to snap a five-game losing streak that dated to Oct. 6, it allowed the Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) to finally become bowl eligible. If nothing else, it is assured that WVU's season won't end with next Saturday's home finale against Kansas.
Iowa State finished its regular season at 6-6 overall and 3-6 in the Big 12. The Cyclones earned bowl eligibility a week ago by beating Kansas.
In the end it was because West Virginia made the one or two plays that had been lacking of late in close losses to TCU and Oklahoma. The fumble on the goal line was the biggest.
"The last three weeks have been tough,'' a relieved West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We could be sitting here with a much better record except for one play here or there.''
The Mountaineers could be sitting there with a sixth straight loss, too, if it hadn't been for Tavon Austin.
Once again, Austin was the most spectacular player on the field. After rushing for 344 yards a week ago in a loss to Oklahoma, he ran for 74 and caught six passes for 99 yards. But he saved his best for the fourth quarter when he ran 75 yards with a jet sweep pass from Geno Smith for the go-ahead score and then ran for the 2-point conversion to make it a 7-point game.
He also returned a punt 68 yards for an apparent touchdown in the fourth quarter, only to have it called back because of a holding penalty on freshman K.J. Dillon. But it still put WVU in position for one of Tyler Bitancurt's three field goals. And if that wasn't enough, Austin ran for the first down that gave West Virginia the last one it needed to run out the clock.
"It's really amazing to see,'' quarterback Geno Smith said of Austin. "He's the most dynamic player in college football.''
But While Austin's heroics were the highlights, the biggest play might have come from a defense which had been ripped again, this time by redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Richardson. Making his first college start, Richardson ran for 119 yards, passed for three touchdowns and time and again burned the Mountaineers with huge third- and fourth-down conversions.
But when it mattered most, Iowa State elected to put the ball in the hands of fullback Jeff Woody and paid for it. With Iowa State on the WVU 7 with a first-and-goal, trailing 31-24 and four minutes to play, Cook tackled Woody and forced the ball loose. Joseph recovered at the goal line with 3:59 to play and the Mountaineers ran out the clock.
"I really wasn't going for the ball,'' said Cook. "I was just trying to tackle him at the chest and the ball popped out.''
Iowa State led 21-20 going to the fourth quarter after trailing most of the game and 24-21 after trading field goals. The Mountaineers led 10-0 and 17-7 in the first half and seemed at times ready to explode and put the game away. It never happened, though, in part because they couldn't score touchdowns when they got within striking distance.
They did, however, get points most of the time by electing to go for field goals instead of fourth-down conversions. Bitancurt was 3 for 4 on his attempts, even though two hit the left upright (one bounced back and another ricocheted through).
"We weren't going to go for it on fourth down in this game,'' said Holgorsen, who had made it a practice of doing so in several other games. "In other games we knew we needed touchdowns [because of the potency of the opponents]. In this game points were going to be important and we knew that.''
After Edwin Arceo made a 49-yard field goal with 6:42 to play to allow ISU to go up 24-23, Austin made his biggest play of the game to give WVU the lead, taking one of those little jet sweep passes, turning up the left sideline and needing only a couple of moves to break into the open. He then took a handoff out of the backfield and surprisingly powered his way into the end zone for the conversion to make it a 7-point game.
But Austin and the defense weren't all the Mountaineers had going for them on this frigid day in front of a crowd of 53,792. Tailback Shawne Alston also returned to the form he hadn't displayed since the opener against Marshall, finally overcoming his season-long thigh injury and running 19 times for 130 yards.
As for Smith, he didn't have his best game but he was efficient when it counted. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Stedman Bailey caught seven passes for 82 yards and a score.
The Mountaineers gained 475 yards of total offense, split almost evenly between passing (239) and rushing (236). Iowa State's 396 yards of total offense was the lowest allowed by the WVU defense since Maryland gained 351 in the season's third game.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.