MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Who do you give a game ball to after Saturday’s 31-17 victory over Maryland?
Do you give it to quarterback Geno Smith, his 10-for-10 passing performance to start the game helping open up a 21-0 second quarter lead that eventually swelled to 28-0 early in the third quarter?
Do you give one to Tavon Austin, who once again showed an extra gear in space and a proclivity to get into the end zone by scoring the game’s first two touchdowns?
Do you give one to either Bruce Irvin or Scooter Berry, who seemed to be in Maryland’s backfield more frequently than Terrapin quarterback Jamarr Robinson? Irvin finished the afternoon with three sacks while Berry had two, including a big fourth down stop when the Terps were fighting their way back into the game.
How about Jock Sanders’ back-breaking 66-yard punt return to the Maryland 8 that led to West Virginia’s 28-point lead with 12:22 remaining in the third quarter? Does that deserve a game ball? Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen thought so, saying afterward that Sanders’ punt return was the turning point in the game.
I’m giving the game ball to fullback Ryan Clarke, whose boring 4.3-yards-per-carry performance on Saturday afternoon was the perfect prescription for a game that had become unnecessarily exciting.
After a third quarter that had more twists and turns than Hurricane Igor – long-bomb touchdown passes, fourth-down stops, double-pass razzle dazzle, holding calls on three consecutive running plays and other miscellany that now escapes my memory, what West Virginia really needed most was a calming influence to settle things down.
And they got it from the big boy.
After Travis Balz’s 35-yard field goal cut West Virginia’s lead to 28-17 with 11:59 left in the game, those still left in the stadium were beginning to get a little uneasy. Tavon Austin’s short kickoff return to the WVU 18 didn’t help things, nor did Noel Devine’s short two-yard run to the 20 to set up a second and long.
Right away your mind starts racing … If Maryland forces a quick West Virginia punt and gets a big return from All-ACC all-purpose man Torrey Smith (who had already burned the Mountaineers for two long scores), or even if the Terps get the ball back in good field position and drive down the field for a touchdown with two timeouts still remaining, what then?
But backup Maryland defensive tackle Zachariah Kerr got flagged for grabbing Devine’s facemask, moving the ball out to the 37, and then on third down Smith hooked up with Austin on a drag for 14 yards to the Maryland 46 to flip the field.
It was there that West Virginia decided to go with its big, old 240-pound tranquilizer in the backfield. Right away he caught a seven-yard pass out of the backfield to the Maryland 39. Ho-hum.
Two plays after that, he picked up three yards to the Terp 34 on third and one. Yawn.
His next three runs gained five, five and four yards. Snooze city.
Five additional Clarke slumbers got the football to the Terrapin six. By the time the big guy was done hammering Maryland’s defense, the clock had gone from 11:59 when West Virginia took over at its own 18 all the way down to 3:07 when Tyler Bitancurt punched in a 23-yard chip shot.
Those eight minutes the offense chewed up also gave the defense time to get reorganized.
Robinson tried another deep pass on first-time starting corner Pat Miller, but his throw down the far sideline to Adrian Cannon was off the mark and carried him out of bounds. On second down, Scooter Berry got to Robinson for an eight-yard loss. Ditto Bruce Irvin, who on third down blew past the edge to get to Robinson for an 11-yard loss, forcing Maryland to burn its final timeout. On fourth down, a heavily pressured Robinson heaved one up into a crowd that Cannon caught for a nine-yard gain to the 33, well short of the sticks.
“I was pleased with how we finished the fourth quarter,” said coach Bill Stewart.
"I'm very pleased with Ryan's effort and the offensive line's effort down the stretch to eat up that clock and keep our defense off the field,” added offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen.
Yes, it’s nice to be able to keep the foot on the gas pedal and continue to take shots down the field, but it’s also nice to have a big back to put in there every once in a while to calm things down when things are getting a little shaky - and they were definitely starting to get a little shaky at the start of the fourth quarter.
Last week at Marshall, West Virginia proved it could win a game at the end in frenetic fashion. This week against Maryland, the Mountaineers displayed the ability to salt one away.
So my congratulations to Ryan Clarke, you get my game ball for putting this baby to bed just before things were getting a little too exciting.
Devine (152.7), Austin (147.7) and Jock Sanders (108.3) are each averaging more than 100 all-purpose yards per game.
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