MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen had the look of a man who had just endured a four-hour root canal today.
His Mountaineer football team trailed Baylor, 14-10, at halftime, needed two second-half scores to take a two-possession lead, saw that lead evaporate to three points in a matter of a minute and a half and then had to hold his breath while replay officials reviewed two critical plays late in the game.
Both turned out well for West Virginia, and the Mountaineers earned a hard-fought 24-21 victory over 6-6 Baylor in front of a crowd of 49,229. It was their 10th win of the season to put this team with only eight others in 125 years of football at WVU to accomplish that feat.
“I have a headache and it still hasn’t gone away,” a relieved Holgorsen said afterward. “I’m exhausted but happy. A bevy of emotions, there’s no question, but it’ll sink in probably here in a little bit.”
Holgorsen joins Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez as the only coaches in school history with multiple 10-win seasons to their credit, and because of that he signed a new five-year contract extension that was announced immediately after the game.
“We’d been working on one, so no big deal,” Holgorsen said. “Good for recruiting though.”
Today’s victory was more about willpower than anything else, and just as it had in prior games this year against BYU, Kansas State and Texas - all down-to-the-wire finishes, the Mountaineers found a way to win.
West Virginia looked like a football team that was playing its seventh straight Big 12 football game without a week off, and because of that there were many, many new players out there on both sides of the ball.
“There were a lot of guys that have taken a lot of snaps for us this year that didn’t play - a lot,” Holgorsen noted. “Nobody cares about that. You can’t use that as an excuse, but we had a lot of guys that have taken a lot of snaps that just weren’t able to play.”
Holgorsen singled out Gross’ play on defense, the junior officially credited with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and a pass breakup in a terrific all-around game.
“(Spur safety) Kyzir White
has been one of our best defensive players all year, breaks his hand, and can’t play,” Holgorsen said. “Marvin steps in there and plays his tail off and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Backup wide receiver Gary Jennings
also came up big late in the third quarter when he took a Skyler Howard
pass at the 47, got past safety Rajah Preciado and outran the other safety, Chance Waz, to the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown - his longest scoring play of the season and a momentum-swinging play.
The other one happened late in the second quarter when West Virginia was facing a fourth and three at the Baylor four. The Mountaineers had already converted one fourth-down play at the 14 when freshman Martell Pettaway
just made the sticks at the 11.
Three plays later, Holgorsen called a pass play that Howard executed beautifully to Daikiel Shorts Jr.
in the back of the end zone.
Shorts was able to get his right toe down in the blue before falling out of the back of the end zone. Instant replay officials upstairs immediately confirmed the catch, a four-yard scoring strike.
West Virginia’s only score before that was a Mike Molina
50-yard field after he had missed a 46-yard field goal attempt on WVU’s second possession of the game. He also misfired on a 31-yarder midway through the third quarter.
Molina became just the ninth player in school history to successfully make a field goal of 50 yards or longer.
Baylor’s two first-half touchdowns came as a result of Terence Williams' nine-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, and KD Cannon’s 60-yard touchdown reception from Zach Smith five minutes later to put the Bears ahead 14-3.
At that point West Virginia was struggling to get anything going in the passing game with Howard finishing the first 30 minutes completing just five of his 15 attempts for 30 yards.
Most of the yardage game on the ground from Justin Crawford
, who finished the game with 209 yards on 28 carries, including a 63-yard burst down the near sideline late in the third quarter that appeared to be headed for a touchdown before a hustling Grayland Arnold pushed him out of bounds at the Baylor 17. The Mountaineers finished that drive without points when Molina’s chip-shot field goal missed to the left.
Howard’s one-yard quarterback sneak into the end zone on fourth down to start the fourth quarter gave West Virginia a 24-14 lead.
Things became extremely interesting late in the fourth quarter when Baylor made it a one-score game in a matter of 1:31, driving 86 yards in just six plays. Two 13 yard-gainers got Baylor out of a deep hole, and then Ishmael Zamora got behind West Virginia’s defense for a 43-yard touchdown down the near sideline.
Baylor’s first stab at an onside kick was recovered by the Bears at midfield with 2:39 to go. However, replay officials reviewed the play and determined Aiavion Edwards had made an illegal block on the kick, requiring the Bears to try another onside kick from the 30-yard line.
However, West Virginia was unable to make a first down to run out the clock and punted the football back to the Bears with 51 seconds remaining.
’s short pooch punt bounced into the end zone, giving Baylor the ball at the 20. Here, following an incomplete pass, JaMycal Hasty ran 17 yards before getting out of bounds at the 37.
Another incomplete Smith pass made it second down with 27 seconds left. Smith’s third attempt to throw the football ended when Noble Nwachukwu
came from behind, stripped the ball out of his hands and the Mountaineers’ Darrien Howard
fell on it at the Baylor 30.
Initially, officials on the field had ruled Baylor’s Ishmael Wilson illegally threw the ball forward, requiring a 10-second runoff of the clock and allowing the Bears to maintain possession at the 27. But replay officials upstairs overruled the call on the field and awarded the football to WVU on a fumble.
Howard then took a knee and ran out the clock.
Crawford’s 209 yards, coupled with his 331-yard performance two weeks ago against Oklahoma, make him just the third player in school history to have two 200-yard-plus rushing performances in the same year.
The others came from Pat White and Steve Slaton in 2006.
Crawford finishes the regular season with 1,168 yards, becoming just the third Holgorsen back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season - current NFL backs Wendell Smallwood (2015) and Charles Sims (2013) being the others.
Howard finished the game completing 10-of-26 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith completed 15-of-31 for 244 yards and two touchdowns for Baylor, but threw two picks. The Bears turned the ball over four times while the Mountaineers played a clean game.
West Virginia (10-2, 7-2) will learn its bowl destination sometime tomorrow.
“We can’t got to a BCS game because there isn’t any, but we can go to a Power-6 bowl and I think we probably deserve to,” Holgorsen said. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out how we’re rated 16th (in this week’s playoff rankings). I haven’t commented on this, but I will now.
“We’ve got two losses to two top-10 teams. There’s other schools that have two and three losses that are ahead of us that don’t have losses to two top-10 schools. I don’t get how that is. It doesn’t make any sense to me. This team has fought hard and maybe we win too ugly - at the end of the day, I thought it was about winning football games."
That is something this year’s team has done, and only eight other teams in school history can match that.