MORGANTOWN - Bill Stewart walked into his postgame press conference Saturday afternoon and immediately began looking for a place to hang the Big East championship T-shirt he brought with him.
Eventually, he gave up trying to prop it up on the podium amongst the gaggle of microphones already there and just wadded it up in front of him.
"I couldn't let that pass,'' Stewart said, referring to the opportunity to brag about what Saturday's 35-14 win over Rutgers had given West Virginia, namely a share of the Big East Conference championship.
The real reward, though, would have been more than a T-shirt. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it didn't come through.
When Connecticut beat South Florida 19-16 Saturday night in Tampa, it earned the Huskies the Big East's automatic berth in a BCS bowl game.
West Virginia still manages to share the Big East championship in a three-way tie with Pitt and UConn, but the Huskies win the tie-breaker for the BCS berth because they beat both WVU and Pitt during the season.
That leaves West Virginia in a lesser bowl to be announced today, which appears to be the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. There is a chance the Champs Sports Bowl could pass on WVU in favor of Notre Dame, in which case the Mountaineers would most likely head to the Dec. 31 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
So in the end, WVU (9-3, 5-2 Big East) had to be satisfied with the lopsided win over Rutgers (4-8, 1-6) in the last home game for 20 seniors. But it was not so much the 20 seniors who dealt the biggest blows to the Knights, but a couple of energetic sophomores.
Quarterback Geno Smith passed for a career-high 352 yards and little Tavon Austin had 167 yards rushing and receiving and two scores as the Mountaineers exploded for 523 yards of total offense to easily overcome three turnovers and a blocked kick.
West Virginia's superb defense, meanwhile, was holding Rutgers to just 203 total yards. It was the same combination of improving offense and stingy defense that allowed the Mountaineers to recover from being 1-2 in Big East play to win four straight at the end of the season.
"We were 1-2 in the Big East at one time and now we're Big East champs,'' Stewart said. "So yes, I'm pleased about that.''
Saturday's chilled crowd of 48,386 was the smallest since the home finale two years ago. That night, 48,019 showed up for Pat White's final game in the snow. Those are the only two crowds of less than 50,000 since 2003.
That the Mountaineers were able to win so convincingly was surprising considering they turned the ball over three times inside the Rutgers 15. Add on a blocked field goal at the end of the first half and that's a potential 24 points off the board.
"I hate the fumbles,'' said Stewart, whose team's three losses this season were directly related to turnovers just like the ones committed Saturday. "But we had enough resolve today to come back and win it.''
Much of that was thanks to the play of Smith and Austin. Smith not only completed 23-of-28 passes (including 11 in a row at one point after a first-play drop) for his 352 yards, he also carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards. His 352 passing yards are the 11th most in school history, and his 396 total yards are the fifth best.
But it was Austin who exploded at the key moments. He caught a 19-yard screen pass that he turned into a touchdown in the first quarter, a 43-yarder down the middle to set up another score, and then on the third play of the fourth quarter, he took an option handoff up the middle and went untouched 46 yards for a score.
"I thought he was going to pull it,'' Austin said of Smith, who actually did that much of the day on his option reads. "I'm just glad he gave it to me.''
Ryan Clarke also had a big hand in the win by rushing for three short touchdowns, thus making up for his fumble to end West Virginia's first possession of the game at the Rutgers 8. Jock Sanders also fumbled early in the game at the end of a 19-yard gain at the Rutgers 13, while Smith lost the ball stretching for the goal line in the third quarter.
"You know, I could scream and yell about the fumbles,'' Stewart said. "But the fact is they were guys trying to make plays.''
All in all, the Sanders fumble didn't make much of a difference in the long run because J.T. Thomas stripped the ball from Rutgers' Jordan Thomas two plays later and returned the ball to the 9. That set up Clarke's 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-0. The Mountaineers had earlier gotten the 19-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Austin in between the two early fumbles.
Rutgers put together by far its most impressive drive of the first half in the second quarter, using a Wildcat formation with Jeremy Deering to ground out yardage in a 79-yard, 12-play drive. But it was Chas Dodd's throws that made the difference. He hit Deering down the middle for 33 yards on a third-and-14 play, then West Virginia's defense lost Thomas out of the backfield and Dodd hit him for an 18-yard touchdown with just under three minutes to play in the first half to make it 14-7.
West Virginia had a chance to get at least three of the points back when it drove right down the field to a first down at the Rutgers 13. But Smith was dropped for an 11-yard loss and then Tyler Bitancurt's 37-yard field goal was blocked. It was the fourth kick Bitancurt has had blocked this season.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Rutgers 0 7 0 7 -14
West Virginia 7 7 7 14 -35
WVU-Austin 19 pass from G.Smith (Bitancurt kick), 8:21.
WVU-R.Clarke 1 run (Bitancurt kick), 14:56.
Rut-J.Thomas 18 pass from Dodd (Te kick), 2:52.
WVU-R.Clarke 1 run (Bitancurt kick), 7:00.