MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Ryan Clarke scored a career-high three touchdowns and Tavon Austin added two more scores to lead 23rd-ranked West Virginia to a 35-14 victory over Rutgers Saturday afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Clarke scored on runs of 1, 1 and 3 yards while Austin caught a 19-yard touchdown pass and ran 46 yards for another one to give West Virginia at least a share of the Big East title.
“I thought the Mountaineers played with a lot of spirit and a lot of (physicality), and we were flying around pretty well,” said Bill Stewart, now 28-11 as West Virginia’s coach.
The Mountaineers scored 35 points despite three red zone fumbles – one by quarterback Geno Smith late in the third quarter as he was trying to extend the football past the goal line. Clarke fumbled at the Rutgers 8 and Jock Sanders put the ball on the ground at the Scarlet Knights 13.
Smith completed 23 of 28 passes for a career-high 352 yards and a touchdown while Austin caught six passes for 121 yards and finished the game with 167 all-purpose yards.
“We had some spotty play,” admitted Stewart. “I didn’t think that we tackled well; I didn’t think that we handled the ball well and turning over the ball was not good, but we gave great effort. We ended up with over 500 yards, scored 35 points and four scores out of seven in the red zone - which is very crucial and very important.”
Both Rutgers touchdowns came on Chas Dodd passes, one for 18 yards to running back Jordan Thomas and the other for 44 yards to Mark Harrison.
West Virginia’s defense, playing most of the game without starters Chris Neild (hamstring) and Brandon Hogan (knee), limited the Scarlet Knights to just 203 yards of offense and sacked Dodd six times. Rutgers came into the game giving up an NCAA worst 55 sacks.
After fumbling away a good scoring opportunity on the game’s opening possession, West Virginia crossed the goal line on its next possession, driving 48 yards in just five plays after a Rutgers punt.
Smith hit Austin for 13 yards to the Rutgers 35, and then hooked up with Clarke for nine yards on third and three to set up Austin’s 19-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass.
West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) extended its lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter following a Jordan Thomas fumble while trying to extend for first down yardage. Travis Garvin stripped the ball out of Thomas’ arms and West Virginia’s J.T. Thomas fished the ball out of the pile, returning it 12 yards to the Rutgers 9.
Two plays later, Clarke bulled in from the 1, his leap at the line of scrimmage repelled by the Rutgers line but he kept his feet and ran in.
Rutgers made the game interesting late in the second quarter, driving 79 yards in 12 plays to reach the end zone. Two big plays, a 32-yard Dodd to Jeremy Deering pass on third and 13 got the ball to the West Virginia 13, and two plays later, Dodd hit a wide open Thomas out of the backfield for an 18-yard touchdown.
The score remained 14-7 at halftime when Alex Silvestro blocked Tyler Bitancurt’s low 37-yard field goal attempt. It was the fourth time a West Virginia field goal try has been blocked this season.
The Mountaineers got to the Scarlet Knights’ 6 before Smith was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Antonio Lowery, and then his third down pass in the corner of the end zone to Brad Starks was broken up by Joe Lefeged.
After forcing Rutgers to punt on its opening possession of the second half, West Virginia took over at its own 9 and drove 91 yards in 10 plays – the vast majority coming through the air. Smith completed passes of 11, 6, 43 and 11 yards on the drive – his 43-yard hookup to Austin coming on first down at the Mountaineer 33. Clarke cleaned up the drive with his second TD run.
“We missed big plays because of missed assignments,” said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. “I put that on coaching. We have to get our players to do what they’re capable of doing, and I think the things we got beat on during big plays today, we were more capable of doing.”
West Virginia tacked on two fourth quarter scores – the second and third fourth quarter touchdowns in conference play this year – one coming from Austin on a 46-yard run down the middle of the field and the other coming from Clarke on a sweep to the right.
Rutgers (4-8, 1-7) scored a late touchdown when Mark Harrison got behind West Virginia’s secondary with 2:02 remaining in the game.
“Again, it was a good win,” said Stewart. “I am proud of my seniors and my juniors and even the young guys even. The juniors and seniors really came out. We talked last night about how great moments can become special memories. If you want to be called a champion, then you have to take one of those moments and make it so special that it will forever be etched in your heart and in your mind and certainly, your soul.
“We were 1-2 one time in the Big East and we came back and now we are Big East champions. I am very, very pleased.”
Rutgers got just 63 yards from its ground game, the eighth time this season West Virginia’s run defense has held its opponent to less than 100 yards in a game.
West Virginia produced a season-high 525 yards of offense. Sanders (64 catches) and Austin (53) became the first Mountaineer duo to catch more than 50 passes in a season since Khori Ivy and Antonio Brown did it in 1999.
Senior Noel Devine ran 13 times for 31 yards and still needs 116 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
Smith now shows 2,567 yards passing and 23 touchdowns for the year – both now second on the WVU single-season list training just Marc Bulger. Smith’s 219 completions are also the second most in a season for a Mountaineer quarterback, exceeded current athletic director Oliver Luck’s 216 completions achieved in 1981.
Bruce Irvin had two more sacks to give him a team-best 12 while junior Julian Miller added three to give him eight this season and 20 ½ for his career.
A season-low 48,386 attended today's game.
Rutgers has lost all 17 times it has played in Morgantown and Schiano is now 0-10 overall against West Virginia. Saturday’s win was also West Virginia’s 16th straight against Rutgers.
“That was an inspired Rutgers team,” said Stewart. “They were playing the last game for their seniors like any team in American would, and they did a very nice job. I just thought our speed got them.”
“We fought our tails off,” added Schiano. “They came out ready to play and we came out ready to play, so both teams fought back and forth. There were some questionable calls, but that’s football. You have to overcome those.”
The victory gives West Virginia a share of the Big East title. The Mountaineers’ other conference titles came in 2007, 2005, 2004, 2003 and 1993.
WVU will learn its postseason destination on Sunday when bowl selections are announced.