MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – You couldn’t have blamed them for being a little tense. Yes No. 3 West Virginia was leading No. 20 Connecticut, 24-14, at halftime of Saturday’s game that would decide the BIG EAST championship, but there were certainly reasons for concern.
The Mountaineers had scored 14 of their points off two Husky turnovers while being outgained 261-200 at the break. Even worse was Connecticut’s ability to run the ball with ease. Running back Donald Brown eclipsed the century mark by halftime, carrying 14 times for 113 yards.
If West Virginia was feeling the pressure of its lofty BCS ranking and all the opportunities that come with it in this tumultuous season of upsets, they certainly didn’t play like it in the second half. The Mountaineers exploded for 42 second-half points, scoring 21 in the third and fourth quarters respectively en route to an easy 66-21 victory over the Huskies Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
“Obviously, I’m very excited,” West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Our guys took a shot from a good team and I’m proud of how we reacted. There is always another team challenging for the championship and our guys responded to that.”
Patrick White got the third quarter started off right, capping a six-play 66-yard drive with a gorgeous run, sprinting to the right then cutting back left to score from 24 yards out to give West Virginia a 31-14 lead with 11:43 left in the third quarter.
On the Mountaineers next possession, Noel Devine got in on the act with runs of 36 and 25 yards, the last going for a touchdown on a run off the left side to make the score 38-14 with 6:35 left.
“We got a spark out of Noel and he got a couple of big runs and we were running our iso zone play,” Rodriguez said. When we were making some great runs, Steve Slaton was making some great blocks. The unselfishness of that was neat to watch.”
White had one of the night’s few offensive miscues on West Virginia’s next possession, throwing an interception to UConn’s Danny Lansanah at the Connecticut seven-yard line. The Huskies quickly returned the favor when quarterback Tyler Lorenzen fumbled two plays later and Reed Williams recovered in the end zone to give the Old Gold and Blue a 45-14 lead with 3:33 left in third quarter.
West Virginia took one more third quarter possession and made the most of it, driving 85 yards capped by a three-yard Steve Slaton run on the first play of the fourth quarter to make the score 52-14 with 14:55 remaining in the game. The score was set up by a 35-yard scamper by White down the sideline.
Consider these numbers from the third quarter alone. West Virginia scored 21 points while racking up 266 total yards, 259 of which came on the ground.
It didn’t end there. After Slaton’s score, freshman running back Jock Sanders got into the mix, breaking loose on a 56-yard run down the right sideline and then finishing the drive with a one-yard plunge to make it 59-14 with 11:36 left.
With the starters on the sideline, Jarrett Brown teamed with Ed Collington on the Mountaineers’ final drive. Brown converted a 3rd and 15 at his own 34, carrying 51 yards to the UConn 15. Collington finished off the scoring with a one-yard burst three plays later.
The second half effort was the most impressive since last season’s victory over Pitt at Heinz Field. West Virginia had 424 yards of total offense in the half, 415 of which came on the ground. The Mountaineers scored touchdowns on six of their seven second half possessions.
The WVU defense was just as impressive after intermission, holding Connecticut to just 131 second half yards.
The game didn’t begin so smoothly, however. UConn struck first, taking its opening drive 92 yards and gaining a 7-0 lead when quarterback Tyler Lorenzen found Brad Kanuch over the middle for the game’s first score. The drive was aided when Quinton Andrews grabbed Lorenzen’s facemask, allowing the Huskies to convert a 2nd and 12 at its own six-yard line.
The Mountaineers quickly responded, covering 65 yards in five plays, scoring on a White 3-yard run to even the score at 7-7 with 10:08 left in the first quarter.
West Virginia built its lead to 24-7 before the Huskies put together a 10-play 77-yard drive capped by Donald Brown’s two-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left in the half.
“I knew at half we weren’t in a rhythm and the second half we got back into it,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t tear the paint off the walls at halftime, it was a normal halftime. We made adjustments offensively and on defense we got some key third-down stops and then answered them offensively.”
The Mountaineers finished with 624 total yards, 517 coming on the ground. White continued his phenomenal play, carrying 16 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 107 yards and another score. Devine had his best outing in more than a month, carrying 11 times for 118 yards and a score.
White and Slaton became just the third set of teammates in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
West Virginia (10-1, 6-1) won its fifth BIG EAST championship in school history. It is assured of a BCS bid and appears to be just a win over Pitt away from playing in the BCS national championship game.
“We haven’t played Pitt with more at stake. It’s not only the “Backyard Brawl” but it’s our seniors’ last game,” Rodriguez said. “This week will be about focusing on the moment and the now. What’s important right now is playing Pitt play-by-play.”
The Mountaineers will battle arch-rival Pitt next Saturday night in the 100th edition of the “Backyard Brawl.” Kick-off from Milan Puskar Stadium is set for 8 p.m.
UC – Kanuch 6 pass from Lorenzen (Ciaravino kick)
WV – White 3 run (McAfee kick)
WV – Reynaud 14 pass from White (McAfee kick)
WV – McAfee 46 FG
WV – Slaton 31 run (McAfee kick)
UC – Brown 1 run (Ciaravino kick)
WV - White 24 run (McAfee kick)
WV - Devine 25 run (McAfee kick)
WV - Williams fumble recovery in end zone (McAfee kick)
WV - Slaton 3 run (McAfee kick)
WV - Sanders 1 run (McAfee kick)
WV - Collington 1 run (Glenn kick)
UC - Davis 2 pass from Brown (Ciaravino kick)