In their best performance of the 2010 season, the defense came up big for West Virginia Saturday in Louisville to lead the Mountaineers to a hard fought 17-10 victory over the Cardinals.
In what has become a pattern throughout the Big East portion of West Virginia's schedule, the WVU offense failed for the fourth time in five games to score more than 3 points in the second half. The Mountaineers gained only 261 total yards on the day and averaged but 2.7 yards per rushing attempt, and gave Louisville its only touchdown on a fumble at the goal line in the second quarter.
But the offense did manage to put together three scoring drives for 17 points, and that was all the WVU defense needed to preserve the win. Louisville managed 85 yards and a field goal on its first two possessions but the rest of the day was an exercise in futility against the West Virginia defenders. In their final 9 possessions of the afternoon, the Cardinals managed only 66 total yards and three first downs, with one of those coming on a WVU penalty.
Punter Greg Pugnetti, who had struggled at times early in the season, was also a big factor in the Mountaineer victory. Despite often dealing with pressure from an aggressive punt rush, Pugnetti averaged 44.9 yards on seven punts, with none of them being returned. As a result, Louisville began nine of its possessions inside its own 25 yard line. That was much too long a field against the WVU defense.
Once again the Mountaineer offense appeared more effective when running out of the I formation, which it did effectively in the fourth quarter and in short yardage situations. Other than some occasional good gains by quarterback Geno Smith, successful rushing attempts from the spread formation were few and far between. Overall, excluding the two short yardage scoring plays, the Mountaineer running backs gained more than 3 yards on only 10 of 34 rushing attempts on the afternoon.
West Virginia kept its Big East title hopes alive, although even winning out in its final two games would not assure a conference championship. In that scenario, the Mountaineers still need a Connecticut loss to either Cincinnati or South Florida to win the league and the BCS berth.
This Friday: West Virginia will travel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the conference leading Panthers in a noon game televised on ABC.
The rivalry has been a bruising defensive battle over the last three seasons with Pitt victories in 2007 and 2008 by 13-9 and 19-15 scores, and the Mountaineers winning 19-16 on a last second field goal in 2009. This year's game will be no exception, as both teams again feature strong defenses. The Panthers have had somewhat more success on offense, however, and are a 3-point favorite. Whether the 2010 season for the Mountaineers can be termed a success will depend on the outcome. This will be an evenly fought battle down the wire, but I'll go with WVU in an overtime thriller. West Virginia 16, Pittsburgh 13.