Tavon Austin turned a flip pass into a 75-yard touchdown, and West Virginia’s defense finally made a play when it needed to as the Mountaineers held off Iowa State, 31-24, Saturday afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.
“I’m proud of the guys the way they just kept fighting,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We knew exactly what we were going to get into tonight. This is a team that was not going to beat themselves. The environment was going to be hostile; it was going to be cold, and it was going to be windy.
“I can give you a thousand different excuses of reasons why we wouldn’t be able to play and come out of here with a victory, but the guys were determined to get the win and I’m proud of them.”
On the go-ahead score, Austin took a quick flip from Geno Smith to the near side of the field, made one quick move and turned on the jets to get past the Cyclone secondary for the game’s biggest play with less than seven minutes remaining and West Virginia trailing 24-23. Austin also ran in the two-point conversion, stretching the ball across the goal line, to give the Mountaineers a seven-point lead with 6:31 to go.
But as has been the case during West Virginia’s five-game losing streak - and all seven Big 12 games this year - the ending wasn’t without a whole lot of drama.
Iowa State (6-6, 3-6) took over at its own 35 after a short Tyler Bitancurt kick and soon faced a third and eight at its 37. West Virginia had Cyclone quarterback Sam Richardson stopped six yards short of the sticks, but linebacker Josh Francis foolishly pushed Richardson’s face mask into the ground after the play, and the Mountaineers were flagged for a 15-yard penalty to give Iowa State a first and 10 at the 46.
A pair of Richardson runs wrapped around a Shontrelle Johnson 13-yard carry gave Iowa State another first and 10 at the Mountaineer 14. Two incomplete passes from there presented Iowa State with a third and 10, and once again it looked like West Virginia had a stop when Richardson’s pass intended for Albert Gray fell incomplete, but this time Will Clarke was flagged for illegal hands-to-the-face to give Iowa State a first and goal at the 7.
On Iowa State’s next play, Richardson gave the ball to 239-pound fullback Jeff Woody, and he ran into West Virginia’s Darwin Cook at the 5. Fortunately for the Mountaineers, the football kept traveling into the end zone where safety Karl Joseph was there to scoop it up.
The game’s only turnover gave West Virginia the ball at its 20 with 3:55 left. A 14-yard Austin run put the ball at the 34, and four straight Shawne Alston runs – including a big third and 3 carry to the West Virginia 44 - were just enough to move the sticks and force Iowa State to burn its final timeout.
Two plays later, Austin ran for 10 yards to the Iowa State 44, allowing the Mountaineers to run out the rest of the clock.
“You’ve just got to keep playing no matter what’s going on if they get a few plays on us or get down to the red zone we’ve got to make sure we get a stop,” Holgorsen said. “Iowa State’s M.O. is to force us to field goals and they did that all day long and we had to get a stop sometime in the red zone and we did.”
Austin finished the game with 261 all-purpose yards – 14 carries for 74 yards, six catches for 99 yards and 88 yards in returns – and he could have had even more but his 78-yard punt return for a touchdown was walked back to the Iowa State 36 when K.J. Dillon was called for holding.
It was one of 11 penalties called on West Virginia for 107 yards for the day.
A fierce wind and some frigid weather conditions forced both teams to try and utilize field position and play it more closely to the vest today.
West Virginia relied on the 240-pound Alston to take a 17-14 lead at the break, with the senior getting 81 of his season-high 130 yards in the first half. Alston, who has been slowed by a deep thigh bruise sustained against James Madison, easily had his best performance since starting the season with a 123-yard effort in the season opener against Marshall.
“It makes a big difference having him in there,” said Holgorsen. “He’s going to grind it out. I’m just glad he’s finally healthy. It isn’t anybody’s fault – it is what it is – but that’s the game of football.”
Alston scored a 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, and six minutes later, Stedman Bailey caught his 21st touchdown pass of the year when he got free down the near sideline to reach the end zone for a 6-yard score.
Before that, Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 42-yard field goal for the only points of the first quarter.
Iowa State’s two second quarter scores came from the arm of Richardson – an 8-yard toss to Jerome Tiller and an 18-yard pass to Josh Lenz with just 18 seconds left in the half.
Richardson’s third touchdown pass went to Quenton Bundrage for 35 yards with 4:56 remaining in the third quarter. It was the 31st play of 30 yards or longer allowed by the West Virginia defense and the 11th touchdown pass covering at least that distance this year.
Bitancurt (35 yards) and Edwin Arceo (49 yards) traded fourth quarter field goals.
Both teams finished the afternoon with 24 first downs and were effective running the football – West Virginia finishing with 239 yards and Iowa State ending with 234.
Smith completed 22-of-31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns to become the first quarterback in school history to throw for more than 11,000 yards, Geno now shows 11,054 yards with one regular season game remaining against Kansas in Morgantown next Saturday.
Richardson finished the day 13-of-31 for 162 yards and three touchdowns while also running 18 times for 119 yards. It was the first time the Mountaineers have allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Iowa State’s 396 yards were the fewest West Virginia has allowed since giving up 351 yards against Maryland back on Sept. 22.
West Virginia (6-5, 3-5) becomes bowl-eligible with its sixth victory and now has a shot at getting win No. 7 next Saturday in Morgantown against Kansas.