As the West Virginia Mountaineers trudged to the locker room for halftime at Rutgers Saturday trailing 31-21, any chance to salvage a successful 2011 football season was on the line.
Following a humbling loss to Syracuse the previous week, West Virginia had played another lousy half of football. The offense had produced some big plays but could not generate any consistency, failing to convert on a single third down. The defense continued its atrocious play by making an average Rutgers offense look like a juggernaut. An interception was dropped. Penalties wiped out positive plays. A hold was botched on a field goal attempt, and a scoring opportunity at the end of the half was frittered away by poor clock management and conservative plays.
But somehow the Mountaineers came together at halftime and pulled out a comeback 41-31 win in the snow and wind. While the last two games have shown this is a team with many flaws, it showed character and perseverance in battling back on the road under adverse conditions.
The defense pitched a shutout and produced three crucial turnovers, while the offense put together three scoring drives for touchdowns.
If there was a turning point, it was with 11 minutes remaining and Rutgers lining up for a 28-yard field goal attempt. The Scarlet Knights instead ran a fake, and the pass was broken up in the end zone. Had the fake been successful and Rutgers regained a 10 point lead, the ultimate outcome may very well have been different. West Virginia then responded with its best drive of the game, 89 yards on 11 plays, ending on a fourth down scoring play to take the lead with 6:18 remaining Another quick score after a turnover and the game was on ice.
Two thirds through the season we have learned that the Mountaineers have a very good offense but have serious problems defensively, having yielded 80 points to average offenses in Syracuse and Rutgers. Special teams are still shaky. So WVU fans will need to be on an "upset alert" the remainder of the way.
The saga of conference alignment over the last several weeks culminated in West Virginia being invited to the Big 12 Conference. While not the ideal scenario, it gives our athletic programs more stability and places them on better financial footing. While the Big East is insisting that the departing schools comply with their 27-month exit requirement, published reports have the Mountaineers beginning play in their new league in the 2012-2013 academic year. I assume some appropriate financial considerations will be made to permit an early departure.
This Saturday: The Mountaineers return to play at home for the first time in four weeks as Louisville comes calling on Saturday. The Cardinals have the best defense in the Big East, having just shut down the same two teams that shredded the WVU defense the past two weeks. This is a very well coached team that is showing improvement, and I expect a very competitive battle. West Virginia 27, Louisville 24.