West Virginia 24, Cincinnati 21
Last week, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown helped Louisville defeat the Mountaineers 38-35. Today, it was Eain Smith’s blocked field goal on the final play of the game that preserved West Virginia’s 24-21 victory over the 23rd-ranked Bearcats Saturday afternoon.
Where to start with this one?
There were five long replay reviews (including one to determine what down it was), injuries, turnovers, blocked kicks, many missed tackles, penalties, a goal line stand, a near safety … you name it, and somehow through all of that the Mountaineers were able to bag their first road win over a nationally ranked opponent since 2007.
The last ranked road victim? You guessed it, Cincinnati right here in the Queen City.
“It’s not about offense, it’s not about defense and it’s not about special teams, it’s about playing with a bunch of energy and wanting to win a football game,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.
For the better part of two quarters it looked like West Virginia had a chance to step on Cincinnati’s throat, particularly after Zach Collaros was knocked out of the game with 8:11 left in the second quarter when his right leg was rolled up by Bruce Irvin as Collaros tried to avoid a sack.
On the play, Collaros, in obvious pain, fumbled the football into the end zone where Julian Miller recovered it for the Mountaineers’ second defensive score of the year.
Collaros had to be transported off the field on a cart and later returned to the sidelines on crutches. He completed 7-of-11 passes for 71 yards before the injury.
Sophomore Munchie Legaux played pretty well in place of Collaros, particularly in the second half when the Bearcats were able to get reorganized at halftime.
On the Bearcats’ third possession of the third quarter, Legaux marched Cincinnati 52 yards in just two plays after benefitting from a short Mike Molinari punt.
Legaux found Isaiah Pead for 45 yards on a wheel route to the West Virginia 7, and then a play later Legaux called his own number, rolling out to his right and running into the end zone for a touchdown to reduce West Virginia’s lead to 17-14.
Legaux once again got the Bearcats on the scoreboard, capitalizing on another short field after a Dustin Garrison fumble at the Cincinnati 48. Legaux hit D.J. Woods for 15 yards to the WVU 43, and then later moved the sticks on third and four with a seven-yard pass to Kenbrell Thompkins.
Another Legaux hookup to tight end Adrien Robinson for 17 yards to the Mountaineer 10 set up Pead’s second touchdown run of the afternoon. Pead’s first TD came on Cincinnati’s opening possession of the game when he broke Jewone Snow’s tackle near the line of scrimmage and ran with a convoy down the far sideline for a 40-yard touchdown.
Pead once again burned West Virginia’s defense this afternoon with 113 yards on 19 carries, giving him 369 yards and four TDs in three career games against the Mountaineers. He also became the third back in Cincinnati history to surpass 3,000 yards rushing for his career.
After Pead’s second score, West Virginia, now trailing 21-17, answered with its best drive of the afternoon. After a Shawne Alston five-yard run got the drive started, Geno Smith located Willie Milhouse across the middle for 24 yards to the Cincinnati 45.
Twice, Smith converted crucial third and long plays to keep the sticks moving. The first, coming at Bearcat 44, covered 13 yards to Stedman Bailey on third and nine to put the football at the 31. And then on third and 15 at the Cincinnati 36, Smith flipped the ball to Tavon Austin on another crossing pattern for 23 yards to the 13.
Two plays after that, Alston punched it in from the 1 for his team-leading eighth rushing touchdown of the year to put the Mountaineers back in the lead 24-21 following Tyler Bitancurt’s kick.
Although neither team scored for the remaining 8:52, there was still plenty going on. Cincinnati’s next possession appeared to end at its own 8 when Legaux inexplicably flipped the football trying to avoid a sack that was ruled a fumble on the field, but the replay official overruled the call when the replay clearly showed that Legaux’s knee was down before the ball came out.
Pat O’Donnell then bailed Cincinnati out with a 61 yard punt that flipped the field. Punts ensued on the team’s next two possessions before Austin gave West Virginia great field position when his 26-yard punt return put the ball at the Bearcat 36 with only 3:40 left on the clock.
West Virginia got to the 30, running the clock down to 2:01 where Holgorsen opted to try a 47-yard field goal into the wind. Bitancurt’s kick danced into the wind before sailing left of the upright, giving Cincinnati the ball at the 30 needing only a field goal to tie the game.
Immediately, Legaux lobbed a high arching pass to Thompkins that was misplayed by the West Virginia secondary for 34 yards to the WVU 36. Another Legaux-to-Thompkins hookup for 14 yards got the ball to the 21 - well within kicker Tony Miliano’s range.
Last week, Miliano earned national kicker of the week honors after booting four field goals in a 26-23 win over Pitt – Cincinnati’s third straight comeback win in conference play. But this week, his low kick was deflected by Smith – Miliano’s second miss of the game – and West Virginia players ran onto the field in celebration.
“I was really proud how the team came together, played all four quarters, and were excited to play,” said Holgorsen.
Geno Smith completed 29-of-43 pass attempts for 372 yards and a touchdown – that scoring toss coming in the first quarter when he found Stedman Bailey wide open for a 59-yard touchdown. It was the 13th straight game Smith has thrown at least one touchdown pass.
“It was a great team win, we faced some adversity all throughout the game, but I think we turned the corner today," said Smith. "Everyone was playing for one another and we were out there trying to make plays for our teammates.”
Bailey finished with six catches for 104 yards for his seventh 100-yard receiving game of the season. Bailey now becomes just the third player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard barrier, now showing 1,037.
Austin also had a big game by catching nine passes for 126 yards and also producing 249 all-purpose yards, but the offense was marred by 13 negative yardage plays from the Cincinnati defense (five sacks) and numerous holding penalties.
“This is game 10 and we continue to teach technique," said Holgorsen. "That’s just part of the game and you have to be able to overcome that.”
The Bearcats limited West Virginia to a net 32 rushing yards on 32 attempts.
Legaux came in and completed 10-of-21 passes for 144 yards while also running eight times for 77 yards. The Bearcats finished near their season average with 190 yards on the ground.
Both teams had 404 yards of offense.
“I thought they played well," said Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. "What do you expect? They are about as explosive as an offense as possible. They scored 24 points and we gave up seven on offense. I mean, 17 points, if you would have told me our defense would give up 17 points, that’s the most talented football team we have played to date. You look at the quarterback and Austin, he did a great job.
"Obviously we gave up some third and longs and they do a great job with an under route and it turns into a middle screen and they block. You know what, I thought our kids played exceptionally hard and I am extremely proud of every individual in that locker room.”
The West Virginia victory, coupled with losses by Louisville at Pitt earlier today and by Syracuse at USF on Friday night, is setting up another chaotic finish in the Big East.
The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) now have a conference loss with back-to-back road games coming up at Rutgers and Syracuse without Collaros possibly under center.
West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) is now in a logjam in second place with the Scarlet Knights, Louisville and Pitt. UConn is also still not out of this thing with a 2-2 league record.
The Mountaineers have a week off before facing Pitt in the Backyard Brawl on Friday, Nov. 25, at Milan Puskar Stadium.
A kickoff time has yet to be announced for the game.
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