What a Finish!
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
October 24, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – That was a fourth quarter to remember! No. 22 West Virginia needed a 56-yard touchdown run from Noel Devine with 2:10 remaining in the game, and then had to hang on for dear life to turn away an emotional Connecticut team, 28-24, Saturday afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“I am so pleased with our football team and coaches for finding a way to win – either by ground or by air,” said an exhausted Bill Stewart after the game. “The team was resilient. They never quit believing in each other or the coaches.”
Connecticut, playing for the first time without starting cornerback Jasper Howard who died from injuries sustained during a campus stabbing last Sunday morning, took a 24-21 lead with 3:50 remaining when Cody Endres hit Marcus Easley in stride on a crossing pattern and Easley outran the West Virginia secondary for an 88-yard touchdown.
The Easley touchdown was set up after Kent Richardson fumbled an interception return at the Connecticut 10 when West Virginia looked like it was about to put the game away.
“Some people would tell me to go get a ball bat and hit him in the head when he fumbled the ball. Do you know what I did? I went over and hugged him and told him to tuck the ball. That’s all,” said Stewart.
After Devine’s 56-yard tightrope down the near sideline that was reviewed by replay officials to see if he stepped out of bounds at the 15, Connecticut was right back in business when Robbie Frey took Josh Lider’s short kickoff 32 yards to the 46.
Two Endres’ passes moved the ball to the West Virginia 33. An ineligible man down field and a Zac Cooper sack forced Connecticut into a third and 21 at the 44. Edsall had to burn its final timeout after getting nine of those yards back on a short pass to Andre Dixon out of the backfield.
Then Endres’ fourth down pass was intercepted by nose tackle Chris Neild, leading to two Jarrett Brown kneel downs to end the game.
“This was a very tough loss,” said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall. “We just couldn’t make one more play at the end that we needed to make. It was a case where we had some big plays against us and some missed opportunities offensively."
“I am glad we were the winner but it is a sad shame for what has happened to our opponent,” Stewart added.
Any doubt that this was going to be a ho-hum affair ended on the opening kickoff when freshman Tavon Austin took it 98 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time West Virginia opened the game with a kickoff return for a TD since 1987 when Eugene Napoleon took the opening kickoff the distance at Maryland.
And the last time West Virginia opened the game with a kickoff return for a touchdown at home was 1972 when Kerry Marbury took it to the house against Penn State.
But after Austin’s return, Connecticut took control of the game with its defense. The Huskies held West Virginia to just 84 total yards before the Mountaineers’ 81-yard touchdown drive right before the end of the half.
In between, UConn got a 5-yard touchdown run from Jordan Todman and a 38-yard field goal by Dave Teggert, who was just one of three on his field goal tries for the afternoon.
Brown completed passes of 23 yards to Alric Arnett and 31 yards to Jock Sanders to get West Virginia to the Husky 11. Eventually, Brown got into the end zone when he eluded pressure looking to pass, sidestepped a tackler at the line of scrimmage and broke wide to the corner of the end zone.
Tyler Bitancurt’s PAT gave West Virginia a 14-10 lead that lasted a grand total of 26 seconds.
Robbie Frey took Lider’s pooch kick at the 20 and returned it 38 yards to the WVU 42. Two crossing patterns by Easley and Kashif Moore covered 33 yards – the second one to Moore going 17 yards for a touchdown to give UConn a 17-14 halftime lead.
Connecticut (4-3, 1-2) took the opening kickoff of the second half all the way to the West Virginia 10 where Teggart missed a 27-yard chip shot. Then West Virginia turned around and missed its field goal try on the next possession when Bitancurt missed wide right from 42 yards.
After an exchange of possession, Devine showed why he is one of the best backs in the country when he took a second and seven carry at the West Virginia 37, changed direction and outran the Connecticut defense for a 62-yard gain before being pushed out at the 1. A crack in the end zone by Ryan Clarke was unsuccessful, forcing Brown to go to the air where he hit tight end Tyler Urban in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. It was Urban’s first TD of the season and the second of his career.
West Virginia went into the game expecting Connecticut to play its base defense because that is what it has done all year. But the Huskies switched to an aggressive, blitzing approach that caught West Virginia off guard.
“I had to go in halftime and get them on the chalkboard because in the 11 years we have been watching Randy Edsall he had never done that (blitz so frequently),” Stewart admitted. “We watched 350 plays and they played their base about 300 of them (heading into today’s game). Today, the first 47 snaps were blitzes.”
It wasn’t until halftime that West Virginia was able to go into the locker room and adjust to the Connecticut pressure. The second half saw the Mountaineers gain 224 yards, mostly from Devine, who ended the game with 178 yards.
The Huskies got a big passing performance from Endres, who completed 25-of-41 pass attempts for 378 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Mountaineer defense was able to force three Endres interceptions and also recovered a fumble.
Easley led all receivers with 157 yards on five catches, while Jordan Todman was Connecticut’s top ball carrier with 94 yards on 20 carries.
Brown, questionable heading into today’s game with a concussion suffered during last week’s win against Marshall, played the entire game and finished 16 of 27 for 153 yards and a touchdown. He threw one pick.
Sanders led WVU with eight catches for 81 yards. Arnett had five catches for 51 yards.
“Our offense found a way to win in the end,” said Stewart.
Linebacker Pat Lazear had a team-high 11 tackles, Ovid Goulbourne and Cooper were credited with sacks, while Neild, Keith Tandy and Richardson made interceptions.
West Virginia improves to 6-1 overall and remains spotless in Big East action with a 2-0. The victory was Stewart’s 16th in 21 games at West Virginia, establishing a record for the best coaching start in school history.
Ira Errett Rodgers had a 15-6 record through the first 21 games of his coaching career from 1925-27.
“The fans were so loud that I couldn’t hear,” said Stewart. “They stepped up. What they were showing on the (video board) got me excited – it was loud and our fans ran with it. I took the team to the student section because they kept us in the game.
“I want to thank everyone who stayed for the Old Gold and Blue and for the class they showed the UConn Huskies.”
Prior to the game, West Virginia paid its respects to Howard by wearing a decal of his No. 6 on its helmets. The two teams also shook hands at midfield following a brief moment of silence before the kickoff.
“The sportsmanship and the love and concern that they showed for our team – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that in sport,” said Edsall. “My hat is off to them. Those were a bunch of class fans, and this is a classy staff and athletic administration. I would just like to say thank you to them.”
The Mountaineers return to action next Friday night at South Florida, facing a Bulls team that lost 41-14 at Pitt earlier today.
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