Same offense, different results says quarterback Geno Smith of West Virginia’s 37-point explosion against Cincinnati on Saturday that very easily could have been 44 points if the Mountaineers could have nudged the football six more inches on a fourth and goal play early in the fourth quarter.
So, what gives Geno?
“As you can see it was just a tale of turnovers,” said Smith. “It’s the same amount of yards. It’s the same effort. It’s when we turn it over we lose and that’s just football.”
In West Virginia’s three losses this year against LSU, Syracuse and Connecticut (by a combined 14 points) the Mountaineers have turned the ball over nine times. West Virginia had two turnovers on Saturday against Cincinnati but both were inconsequential. A Smith interception thrown deep down field early in the first quarter was more like a punt, and Trey Johnson’s fumble late in the game came when the outcome was already decided.
In between, West Virginia aired it out in the first half to get a big lead before taking the air out of the ball in the second half and relying on a stingy defense that held the Bearcats below 300 total yards for only the third time this season.
At one point in the second half the offense ran the ball 22 consecutive times.
“Twenty two? I didn’t know that,” said Smith. “Obviously at one point in time we were just trying to run the clock and keep the chains moving and we felt like running the ball was the best option at the time and we did it well.
“I really liked the way the guys stepped up on the line, especially because they took it to those guys,” Smith said.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen was also happy with his team’s grind-it-out mentality on Saturday.
“We’ve been a good rushing team since I’ve been here,” explained Mullen. “The front end of this season has been a little difficult because of our inability to run some option and that’s not the line’s fault. That’s quarterback depth issues.
“When you’ve got a quarterback where he is health-wise, and your limited depth, again, you get into those statistics,” Mullen said. “You run the quarterback like we did last time and we get to 250. That’s what made (Saturday) so special because we were able to grind it out with some pretty basic football plays in a situation where I really thought we needed to keep (Zach) Collaros and that high-explosive offense off the field.”
A different cast of characters also contributed to the running game, the Mountaineers posting back-to-back 240-plus-yard performances for the first time this season to boost their rushing average to 166.7 yards per game.
Sophomore Shawne Alston got 17 carries on Saturday, accumulating 75 total yards, and received most of the carries on that clock-eating drive late in the third quarter that ended at the six-inch line when fullback Ryan Clarke chose to go airborne instead of going low and powering the ball in.
“I know at the end there we wanted a guy with a little more lead in his pencil because of the play calls we were calling,” said Mullen of the decision to use Alston. “I’m happy with all of our running backs and what they did today.”
Nineteen of West Virginia’s 29 first downs came on the ground and although West Virginia didn’t have a 100-yard rusher against Cincinnati, nine different players ran the ball and two – Noel Devine and Alston – combined for 155 yards on 35 carries.
That was exactly what West Virginia needed to do at a point in the season when poor weather conditions can become an issue.
– Smith said he didn’t watch all of the Pitt-Connecticut game on Thursday night, but he did see enough of it to realize UConn’s victory had given everyone in the conference new life.
“Not to say we knew we were going to win, but we came out with every intention to win,” Smith said. “We kind of felt like we got a second life with Pitt losing and we felt like those two games we let slip away with turnovers and mental errors. We felt like we had to get back to it and we felt this was a must-win situation for us.”
Smith’s four TD passes on Saturday against Cincinnati gives him 19 for the season to move him into a three-way tie with Rasheed Marshall and current athletic director Oliver Luck for third place on the WVU single-season list.
Another Jeff Mullen quarterback, Pat White, is second with 21 TD passes thrown in 2008. Marc Bulger holds the school record with 31 touchdown passes thrown in 1998.
– Coach Bill Stewart said West Virginia wanted to take more shots down the field against Cincinnati’s 98th-ranked pass defense on Saturday. Consequently, there were fewer passes around the line of scrimmage, although one of them to Jock Sanders turned into a 48-yard touchdown – Sanders’ longest TD catch of his career.
Jock is now three catches shy of breaking David Saunders’ 12-year record for career receptions with 191. If all goes according to plan, Sanders should get the record this Saturday at Louisville.
– How about the defensive performance put forth by the Mountaineers on Saturday? Even the offensive staff took notice.
“You’ve got a defense getting off the field on third down and making them punt,” said Mullen. “Our average starting position was right around midfield and I don’t think theirs was. That’s a huge part of the game in what you’re able to call and how you were able to stay rhythmic and those kinds of things.”
Safety Sidney Glover had a great stat line on Saturday: six tackles, two tackles for losses, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Cornerback Keith Tandy made a pretty pick in the end zone for his fifth interception of the season, but it was his hit on Cincinnati’s D.J. Woods on a bubble screen that got the entire stadium jacked up. Tandy finished the afternoon with five tackles, four pass breakups, a tackle for a loss and a pick in one of the best all-around performances of his career.
In fact, both starting cornerbacks played extremely well. Senior Brandon Hogan also intercepted a first-half pass that led to West Virginia’s fourth touchdown of the game.
Overall, the defense came up with 13 negative yardage plays against the Bearcats – five sacks and eight tackles for losses – and kept Cincinnati from converting a single third down attempt in 12 tries. Through nine games the defense shows 28 sacks and 61 tackles for losses.
– I don’t have the slightest idea who is going to win the Big East but I think it’s safe to assume that teams with three conferences losses have now removed themselves from contention, and that includes two of West Virginia’s remaining three opponents Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals dropped a heartbreaker in overtime to USF after coming back to tie it late. And Rutgers had a shot at beating Syracuse on Saturday, but the Scarlet Knights gave up a late field goal in a 13-10 loss.
Pitt, now 3-1 in league play, still controls its own destiny if it can win its remaining three games against USF, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Syracuse (4-2) is the closest to the barn with one conference game left against Connecticut next Saturday. The Orange is bowl eligible for the first time since 2004.
If the league race were to wind up in a three-way tie, which could very easily happen, then the conference will go to the BCS standings to determine its champion and representative in the BCS bowl.
By John Antonik
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