Tyler Bitancurt’s 28-yard field goal on the final play of the game lifted 23rd-ranked West Virginia to a 30-27 victory over South Florida Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Bitancurt’s winning kick was set up by Stedman Bailey’s sliding, 26-yard reception on fourth and 10 to take the football to the Bulls 16.
“Geno called the play and Geno and Stedman have a good rapport,” explained West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We were going to key that safety and if the safety played over, then we were going to have Tavon (Austin) over the middle. But the safety played back and Stedman was able to come underneath him. It was a heck of a throw and catch.”
After Bailey’s grab, he was still on the ground until a hustling Shawne Alston ran down the field, picked him up and helped him get lined up in order to give West Virginia enough time to spike the football to stop the clock with four seconds remaining and the Mountaineers out of timeouts.
“Shawne’s a smart player,” said Holgorsen. “That was pretty smart. I was yelling at them but they couldn’t hear me.”
A USF penalty on the next play got Bitancurt five yards closer to the 11.
“We never gave up and there were plenty of opportunities for us to quit and we pulled through,” said Bitancurt. “Going in for that field goal, I felt really confident and the whole team was backing me up on the sidelines and showing that they believed in me, which definitely helps.
“I wasn’t sure how far the kick was going to be, I just knew that we had to be ready to put it through,” Bitancurt continued. “Thankfully, Geno made a great play and got us a little closer and the penalty obviously helped because I’m closer to the uprights.”
Bitancurt said he was pretty calm, even after South Florida used a timeout right before his kick to try and ice him.
“I had a good feeling that I was going to put it down the middle,” said Bitancurt. “If you remember back, Pitt did that too (in 2009).”
Of course, Bitancurt was referencing the first game-winning kick of his career against Pitt in 2009.
He also kicked field goals of 23 and 42 yards, the defense produced a pick-six score and Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to pick up a suddenly struggling Mountaineer offense that failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season.
In fact, WVU was just 2 of 14 on third down, was outgained 397-364, and turned the ball over three times – including JaQuez Jenkins’ 24-yard interception return for a touchdown that put South Florida ahead 27-20 midway through the fourth quarter, but it did find a way to come up with enough plays at the end to win it.
“We put ourselves in so many precarious situations but we found a way to win it at the end,” said Holgorsen. “Give the guys a bunch of credit for hanging in there and continuing to play and not caving in when they had the opportunity to cave in.”
It was West Virginia’s third heart-stopping victory in as many weeks, the Mountaineers winning by three at Cincinnati, by one at Pitt last Friday night and by three tonight – all of them in come-from-behind fashion (eight of WVU's nine wins this year were comebacks).
“Our guys have figured out ways to win, which is the bottom line,” said Holgorsen.
The play of the game came with 3:07 left and South Florida working its way into position for the go-ahead score. Lindsey Lamar’s 53-yard kickoff return after Dustin Garrison’s game tying 5-yard touchdown jaunt gave the Bulls great field position at the WVU 41.
A first-down run by quarterback B.J. Daniels got South Florida a new set of downs at the WVU 28, but his next carry proved disastrous for South Florida. Daniels was stripped by West Virginia’s Najee Goode and the loose football was recovered by Doug Rigg at the 26.
“We noticed on film that’s one of the things B.J. will do is he will get a little reckless with the football, and our guys had an opportunity to make a play and Naj did it,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “We knew those opportunities would be there and for Naj to do it at such a critical time, it means instead of getting beat by a field goal we win by a field goal.”
When West Virginia regained possession, Dustin Garrison runs of 9, 4, and 9 was wrapped around a J.D. Woods 10-yard catch to move the ball to the USF 42 with 1:42 on the clock, but Smith took a big nine-yard sack that burned 24 seconds off the clock and pushed the football back to midfield.
Smith got nine of those back on a pass to Bailey, and after an incomplete pass, Smith hit Bailey on the big fourth-down pass to the 16 – West Virginia’s third fourth-down conversion of the game.
“There were a lot of times out there I didn’t feel real confident in what we were calling but you can’t quit, you’ve got to keep going,” said Holgorsen.
Besides that, the offense produced just two other drives that resulted in points – a six-play, 34-yard drive that ended with Bitancurt’s second quarter field goal, and an 11-play, 78-yard drive that led to Garrison’s game-tying TD run.
“We threw that interception to get them relaxed a little bit,” joked Holgorsen. “Once they pick-sixed us and got up by seven, we figured they would relax and we would be able to call some plays that worked.
“It’s a struggle,” Holgorsen added. “I don’t know. It’s all about blocking and we do a very average job of that and I think our confidence has taken a little bit of a hit the last three weeks. Give South Florida credit. They’ve got a good defense.”
West Virginia’s other points came as a result of Pat Miller’s 52-yard interception return for a TD, Willie Milhouse’s blocked punt recovered by the Mountaineers at the 5 that led to Bitancurt’s first field goal, and Tavon Austin’s 90-yard kickoff return for a TD following a South Florida field goal.
South Florida’s only touchdown of the first half came as a result of the replay official overruling the call on the field that Sterling Griffin was out of bounds during his 20-yard TD catch. Although Griffin got a foot down, it did not appear he had control of the football until he was on his back out of bounds.
Had South Florida won the game, that play would have been analyzed the same way the Cincinnati game was reviewed and discussed in 2009 when the replay official awarded the Bearcats a controversial touchdown that ended up being the deciding margin in the game.
Smith completed 23-of-35 passes for 237 yards with two interceptions, the junior failing to throw a touchdown pass in a game for the first time this season and snapping a streak of 14 straight games with at least one TD throw dating back to last year.
Bailey had seven catches for 80 yards and Austin finished with seven grabs for 54 yards; Alston also rushed four times for 13 yards and returned three kicks for 141 yards to accumulate 208 all-purpose yards.
Garrison came up with his best rushing performance since his 291-yard effort against Bowling Green, the freshman getting 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against a stingy South Florida defense.
“They did a good job of crowding the box and backing people up,” said Holgorsen. “When we tempo’d and started going faster we limited what we did. But the problem is when you’re not getting yards and you’re going three-and-out, then you’re putting your defense out there a lot.”
West Virginia’s defense was forced to play 82 snaps during tonight’s game.
Daniels, who sat out last week’s Louisville loss with an injured shoulder, completed 21 of 44 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown.
“The one thing we learned about the last time we were down here is you really have to be careful how you go about trying to get him,” said Casteel. “He made us pay two years ago and so we wanted to try and stay in front of him as best we could and if we could sack him good but if not, we wanted to make sure that we were always in his face when he was trying to throw the football.
“He’s a really a dynamic player and he’s obviously a guy who can change the game and I think our kids did a really good job on him.”
Darnell Scott led South Florida with 92 yards on 14 carries before leaving the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. South Florida’s ground attack produced 171 yards against West Virginia’s defense.
The winning team has led at halftime in all seven West Virginia-South Florida games dating back to 2005 - the only other time WVU has won at Raymond James Stadium.
The victory tonight assures the Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2) a share of their seventh Big East title dating back to 2003. West Virginia has also won at least five Big East games in each of the last 10 years and is one of only three programs in the country to win at least nine games seven consecutive years. WVU also became the 14th program in NCAA history to record 700 football victories.
A Cincinnati victory over Connecticut on Saturday would give the Bearcats a three-way tie with West Virginia and Louisville for the conference title, but West Virginia would get the league’s BCS berth because of tiebreakers. If the Bearcats lose then 7-5 Louisville would get the Big East’s BCS spot because of its 38-35 victory over WVU in Morgantown on Nov. 5
Ticket information for West Virginia’s bowl game will be available at MSNsportsNET.com on Sunday evening.