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CINCINNATI – Sooner or later these fourth-quarter fumbles are going to come back to haunt No. 5-rated West Virginia. For the second straight game West Virginia made a double-digit second-half lead interesting by coughing up the football. And for the second straight game the Mountaineers were able to hold on for a victory by defeating No. 21 Cincinnati 28-23 Saturday night to keep its Big East title hopes alive.
“We made things interesting,” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, now 32-7 in his last 39 Big East games. “I’m proud of our guys. I thought we were extremely focused. We played hard; they played hard.”
Just like Louisville 12 days ago, West Virginia appeared to have the football game well in hand. But a pair of fourth-quarter Patrick White fumbles gave Cincinnati new life.
Following a Ben Mauk-to-Marcus Barnett 13-yard touchdown pass that pulled the Bearcats with within 11 with 7:14 remaining, twice Cincinnati got the football back after White fumbles.
“Both fumbles came on first downs,” Rodriguez pointed out. “You don’t want to fumble anytime but there were a couple of minutes we could have burned off the clock.”
The first fumble came when White mishandled the center exchange from Mike Dent and UC recovered the football at the West Virginia 44. The Mountaineer defense was able to force a Bearcat punt with 6:08 left.
West Virginia took over at its own eight and on third and six at the 12, White ran for a first down but the football was stripped by Terrill Byrd and recovered by DeAngelo Smith at the 24.
Seven plays later Bradley Glatthaar got into the end zone from a yard out to pull Cincinnati to within five with 2:26 on the clock. Cincinnati’s two-point conversion try failed when cornerback Larry Williams knocked down Mauk’s pass in the end zone, leaving the Mountaineers with a five-point lead.
The Bearcats’ onside kickoff attempt was courageously recovered by Boogie Allen at the UC 42. Two Steve Slaton runs gave West Virginia a first down at the Cincinnati, forcing the Bearcats to burn its final timeout with 1:44 remaining. A Slaton six-yard run on second and four to the Cincinnati 20 iced the game.
The result was more interesting than it probably should have been, considering West Virginia rolled out to a 21-10 halftime lead and led 28-10 with eight minutes left in the game.
West Virginia (9-1) used a nine-play drive, covering 70 yards on its opening possession to take a 7-0 lead. A White to Slaton 32-yard pass set up Owen Schmitt’s 4-yard touchdown run.
Cincinnati tied the game six minutes later when a scrambling Mauk flicked a long pass downfield to a wide open Marcus Barnett for a 70-yard touchdown. Barnett was easily five yards beyond the closest Mountaineer defender and jogged into the end zone.
Twelve minutes into the second quarter, West Virginia retook the lead on a White 7-yard touchdown run around left end, wrapping up an impressive 12-play, 80-yard drive that saw White directly involved in nine of the 12 plays – six of them runs.
Immediately Cincinnati struck back with passes of 16 and 17 yards to set up Jake Rodgers’ 42-yard field goal with 4:32 left in the half.
White once again took charge when West Virginia got the ball back at the 26. On first and 10, White deftly eluded Cincinnati’s top pass rusher Anthony Hoke and fired a 26-yard pass down the far sideline to Dorrell Jalloh. Four straight White runs netted 30 yards, and a 12-yard White-to-Reynaud pass on second and five moved the ball to the Cincinnati five. Two plays later White followed Owen Schmitt into the end zone with 33 seconds left. Pat McAfee’s PAT made it 21-10.
The two teams played a scoreless third quarter, although Cincinnati had a great chance to score with the football first and goal at the West Virginia seven at the 8:40 mark. West Virginia defensive tackle Keilen Dykes beat his man to Mauk and forced a fumble Dykes was able to recover at the West Virginia 13.
West Virginia’s final score came with 11:43 remaining in the game. Two critical third-down conversions by White – a 14-yard run on third and three to the Bearcat 18 and a 13-yard White-to-Slaton pass on third and six to the Cincinnati one set up Slaton’s 1-yard touchdown run.
White finished the game with 295 yards of total offense, rushing 27 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns and completing 13 of 19 passes for 140 yards.
“Pat was a true warrior and obviously he felt bad about the way the game ended but at the same time any win is a good win. We won and now we get to play for the Big East championship against a very good UConn team at our place,” Rodriguez said.
Slaton also cracked the 100-yard barrier for the sixth time this season, gaining 103 yards on 23 carries. Slaton now shows a team-leading 988 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns for the season, while White is right behind Slaton with 958 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Our guys up front were getting good movement; Pat was hitting some creases. Steve didn’t have a lot of room in the first half but he made some runs. There was enough variety in our runs and we felt comfortable moving the ball,” Rodriguez said.
Darius Reynaud caught six passes and now has 51 for the season, becoming just the second receiver in Rich Rodriguez’s seven seasons at WVU to have more than 50 catches in a year. Reynaud now shows 51 receptions for 569 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Slaton was West Virginia’s leading receiver against Cincinnati with three catches for 48 yards. Slaton is the team’s second-leading receiver with 22 catches for 328 yards and a touchdown.
Ben Mauk had an outstanding game for Cincinnati, now 8-3, totaling 375 yards of total offense and two touchdowns. Mauk was 19 of 34 passing for 323 yards and two touchdowns. Marcus Barnett had 10 catches for 210 yards and both scores.
“I thought their quarterback played terrific,” Rodriguez said. “That was our biggest fear ... him scrambling around and making plays.”
It was the second consecutive road victory over a ranked team this season for West Virginia, now 4-5 under Rodriguez in games against ranked teams on the road.
The victory sets up a showdown for the Big East championship at Milan Puskar Stadium between a pair of one-loss teams in West Virginia and Connecticut. The Huskies boosted their conference record to 5-1 with a 30-7 win over Syracuse earlier today and are 9-2 overall.
ABC announced today that it will televise the game regionally with the game time being set at 3:30 p.m.
“I told our team that we have to have a very good week of preparation and I think they will,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have any school and our guys will be focused. We’ll enjoy this for about a half a day and (Sunday) we will be working on UConn.”
West Virginia is expecting a sellout crowd for the game and could extend its school-record streak of 60,000-plus crowds to six on Saturday provided the WVU students return to campus a day early from Thanksgiving recess.
Last year’s crowd against South Florida after Thanksgiving break on Nov. 25 was a disappointing 52,790 with nearly all of those empty seats being in the student section. The No. 7-rated Mountaineers were upset by the Bulls, 24-19.
The call goes out to the WVU students this week to support a team that could be third or fourth in this week’s BCS standings following upset losses by Oklahoma and Oregon that is clearing a path for the Mountaineers to get back into the national title hunt. LSU and Kansas should be one and two in this week’s BCS standings, but the Jayhawks have a big game looming against No. 5 Missouri and a possible meeting in the Big 12 championship game to get past as well.
The updated BCS standings will be released early Sunday evening.