After trailing 27-7 after a turnover- and mistake-filled first half, West Virginia almost immediately showed signs of life and jumped right back into the game.
After giving up an LSU drive to start the second half but dodging a bullet when Rueben Randle dropped an easy touchdown pass and Drew Alleman pulled a 30-yard field goal, Smith and Austin really began clicking.
First West Virginia went 80 yards in six plays, the biggest being the little flip pass Smith tosses to an in-motion Austin right at the snap. Austin turned that into a 38-yard gain and five plays later Smith hit a wide-open Tyler Urban for a 12-yard touchdown to make it 27-14.
Two series later, Smith and Austin began another drive with a huge play -- a 72-yard pass down the middle with the Mountaineers on their own 10. This time it was freshman tailback Dustin Garrison who finished off the drive, first converting third-and-12 with a 19-yard run with a screen pass, then scoring from the 1 to cut the margin to 27-21.
But that's when Claiborne stuck a knife in all that enthusiasm and let the air out.
On the ensuing kickoff he took the ball just in front of his goal line, slipped a tackle by Avery Williams at about the 20, then somehow got out of another mass of bodies along the sideline at about the 40. From there he ran untouched to the end zone, a 99-yard return that pushed the margin back to 34-21.
"The whole season coach Holgorsen talks about how important special teams are,'' said Garrison, who had 46 rushing yards and caught four passes for 26 yards. "It's hard to win a game when the special teams aren't as good as they can be.''
When West Virginia then went for a fourth-and-3 near midfield and failed, the Tigers drove 57 yards and scored an insurance touchdown on a 15-yard run by Michael Ford that made it 40-21. The Tigers added another touchdown late in the game to wrap it up.
In the first half, LSU scored early by converting two third-and-long situations and Lee threaded a bullet into Randle in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead. It didn't hurt, either, that LSU had to go just 58 yards for the score after Corey Smith shanked a 14-yard punt -- yet another special teams problem that plagued WVU all night.
West Virginia's defense was then put into some nasty situations when the offense turned the ball over two straight times in the first quarter -- a fumble by Brad Starks after a catch and an interception of a pass that ricocheted off of Austin -- and gave LSU the ball at the 50 both times. The defense held the first time and forced a punt, but the second time LSU went 50 yards in seven quick plays and made it 13-0 on Ford's 22-yard run. The PAT was botched.
West Virginia got things going at the start of the second quarter when Ivan McCartney caught a 13-yard pass to convert third-and-13. With Austin doing most of the damage on the receiving end, WVU marched steadily down the field and Bailey capped the drive when he caught a sideline curl from Smith. Claiborne came up and tried to make the tackle, but Bailey juked him and raced into the end zone to finish a 20-yard play. That closed the gap to 13-7.
LSU would get the score back later in the second quarter, though, when the WVU defense was burned again. On a third-and-one near midfield, the Mountaineers bit on a play-action fake and Lee found a wide-open Beckham across the middle. Beckham easily outran safety Terence Garvin to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
Just as it appeared West Virginia might get out of the half with just that deficit, though, LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu blitzed on a third-and-long with 37 seconds left in the half, batted a Smith pass and caught it on the run. He returned it 19 yards to the 1-yard line and two plays later Lee hit tight end Chase Clement for a touchdown to make it 27-7.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.