West Virginia 43, Connecticut 16
The 16th-ranked Mountaineers got 450 yards and four touchdown passes through the air from Geno Smith to run their record to 5-1 heading into an off-week.
“It was a good win today,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who presented a game ball to the family of Mountaineer Field namesake Milan Puskar, who died yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer. “It seemed like everything we did was hard today, though.”
Connecticut, trailing just 10-9 on its opening possession of the third quarter, marched to the West Virginia 13 and was poised to retake the lead - either with another Dave Teggart field goal or a touchdown - but quarterback Johnny McEntee coughed up the football scrambling to the WVU five. McEntee was met there by West Virginia’s Pat Miller, the ball popped into the air, and linebacker Jewone Snow hauled it in and began running up the far sideline. Snow was finally pulled down from behind by Ryan Griffin at the Husky 12, an 83-yard return.
“That was a huge spark for us,” said Holgorsen.
“We had the ball in the tight red, and it looked like we were going to at least kick a field goal and go ahead,” added Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni. “We had a bad miscue, and a penalty on the play when the ball got snapped (illegal formation).
“Johnny tucked the ball in and didn’t have anyone to throw it so he ran it, and instead of going down he stayed up, got hit, and the ball came out.”
Two plays after Snow’s fumble return, Smith fired a 12-yard touchdown pass to Tavon Austin on a quick slant to make it 17-8, West Virginia.
From there, the roof caved in on the Huskies, now 2-4, 0-1. After forcing UConn into a three-and-out series and a punt on its ensuing possession – one of nine punts for Connecticut on the afternoon – West Virginia began to distance itself when Smith found Stedman Bailey out in the flat, Ty-meer Brown missed the tackle, and Bailey took off up the near sideline for an 84-yard touchdown. A hustling Austin helped Bailey reach the end zone by running interference.
“I think Geno came out a little bit looser and more confident,” said Pasqualoni. “He hit a long pass on one of our base zones and got a ball in there, and we missed a tackle, which turned that into a big play.”
And just like that Connecticut’s plan of possessing the football and using short, controlled passes went out the window. In fact, after the fumble, UConn managed just two first downs and 26 total yards for the remainder of the game.
“It’s a game that got out of whack in the end,” said Pasqualoni.
“You can’t win a championship unless you have three sides of the equation,” Holgorsen said, mentioning the exceptional play of his defense and an improving special teams with Tyler Bitancurt handling kickoffs and freshman Michael Molinari now doing the punting. “If you only win one of three sides you are going to get beat.”
Molinari averaged 43 yards per punt, and more importantly, pinned Connecticut inside its 20 twice. Bitancurt was also outstanding on kickoffs, the coverage unit limiting the Huskies to an average of just 19.8 yards per return.
Connecticut’s only touchdown came as a result of Brown’s 48-yard pick six thrown by backup quarterback Paul Millard. West Virginia’s offense was actually responsible for 10 of Connecticut’s 16 points – a botched fourth-down run at the UConn 40 with a minute left in the first half helped the Huskies get into position for Taggert to kick a 22-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
Taggert also made field goals of 53 and 40 yards to help Connecticut execute its plan brilliantly in the first half. The Huskies had an 18-11 advantage in time of possession and limited the Mountaineers’ ground game to just 33 first-half yards.
“I may have given up on the run too early,” admitted Holgorsen. “We all want to score every time we get it, but we have to be realistic.”
Teggart’s 53-yard field goal tied the stadium record for opponents; Syracuse’s Patrick Shadle, a Morgantown native, booted a 53-yard field goal in 2008.
The only touchdown in the first half came as a result of a Dustin Garrison 14-yard touchdown run, the 175-pound freshman meeting 215-pound safety Jerome Junior at the two and bulling his way into the end zone for his fifth rushing TD of the year.
Garrison finished the game with 80 yards on 14 carries to follow up his 291-yard performance against Bowling Green last weekend.
Smith completed 27-of-45 passes with his TD scores going to Bailey for 84 and 27 yards, to Austin for 12 yards, and to Brad Starks for 27 yards.
Bailey had his school-record fourth 100-yard receiving game, finishing the afternoon with seven catches for 178 yards, while McCartney added six catches for 131 yards.
“Ivan had a couple of drops, or he could have had even more,” said Holgorsen.
Bailey’s streak of 100-yard games have come against Maryland (113), LSU (115), Bowling Green (112) and now Connecticut. The sophomore now shows 34 catches for 634 yards and four TDs this season.
Smith’s 450 yards passing pushes his career total to 5,231 to move him past Major Harris (5,173) into sixth place on West Virginia’s all-time passing yardage list. Smith also tied Harris for sixth in career touchdown passes with 41; Smith already shows 2,159 yards through the air at the halfway mark this season.
He has also thrown at least one TD pass in nine straight games dating back to last year.
“He is capable of being as good as any quarterback in college football,” Holgorsen said. “He still puts too much on his shoulders; there was a point in that second quarter and he did some things, which we will address. He doesn’t need to take over the game and once he 100-percent understands that, he will keep getting better.”
West Virginia’s defense limited Connecticut to 275 total yards, 193 of those coming through the air.
UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee completed 21 of his 37 pass attempts, while freshman Lyle McCombs ran for 73 yards on 20 carries.
Connecticut was just 4 of 16 on third down and didn’t have an offensive play longer than 20 yards for the game.
“(The defense) was the best it’s been all year,” said Holgorsen. “That was a heck of a second half. That was a dominating performance from our defense.”
West Virginia’s D finished the game with seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage and a season-high five sacks. The Mountaineers came into the game with just three sacks through its first five games.
The UConn secondary, torched for 479 yards last week by Western Michigan, gave up 469 yards against West Virginia and has now surrendered 1,048 yards in its last two games.
“At the end of the day, this is high-level football and you have to make plays,” said Pasqualoni. “They made the plays and that play that that linebacker made hitting Johnny, that’s a key play and a big play in the game. We just didn’t make the plays.”
Connecticut has not fared well against West Virginia in games played at Milan Puskar Stadium, going 0-4 with West Virginia’s average margin of victory being 27 points.
West Virginia now has a week off before making its second road trip of the season at Syracuse, which plays at Tulane tonight. The Orange are also idle next weekend.
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