The West Virginia Mountaineers kept alive their slim Big East hopes by surviving a 24-21 marathon at Cincinnati Saturday. The game seemed more like a war of attrition, lasting nearly four hours due to injuries, numerous replays, and a flag-happy officiating crew that once had to consult replay to keep track of downs.
Ironically, the much-maligned WVU special teams saved the game by blocking a 31-yard field goal attempt on the final play. Had the relatively short kick been converted, the lengthy battle would have extended into overtime.
With the absence of even a semblance of a running game (32 yards rushing), the Mountaineers still managed to move the football against a pretty good Bearcats defense. Geno Smith completed 29 of 43 passes for 372 yards while often being pressured by the Cincinnati pass rush. Smith was at his best during the game-winning drive, converting two third and longs in the process.
West Virginia benefited from the absence of Bearcat quarterback Zach Collaros, who was injured on a sack and defensive touchdown in the second quarter. Although backup Munchie Legaux (is that a great name or what?) played reasonably well, the outcome of this game may very well had been different if Collaros had played the entire afternoon. But injuries are part of football. WVU fans will remember some losses during the Pat White years when he was knocked out of the game.
The Mountaineer defense did play much better than during the previous three games, as it not only converted a defensive score but also stopped Cincinnati on fourth down at the goal line in the first quarter. Giving up the big play continued to be a problem, however, as five Cincinnati offensive plays went for 33, 35, 40, 45 and 65 yards.
After the Collaros injury, West Virginia had four possessions inside Cincinnati territory but failed to convert for any points. Two punts, a blocked field goal and a fumble later, the Mountaineers had failed to take control of a game against a team that had come from behind several times in the fourth quarter this season, and did it again Saturday before the WVU game winning drive.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen was faced with a decision late in the game with WVU at the Cincinnati 30 with fourth down and 6 to go with 2 minutes remaining. It obviously was too close to punt, but instead of going for the first down and trying to put the game on ice, he elected to attempt a 47-yard field goal. Against the wind the attempt had no chance, and given that the Mountaineers have had two field goal attempts blocked in two games, it was a puzzling decision.
Playing the game at Paul Brown Stadium rather than Cincinnati's small antiquated Nippert Stadium was a good choice. Having attended games at both, it was like going from the outhouse to the penthouse.
The Mountaineers are off next weekend, returning to action on Friday, Nov. 25 against the Pitt Panthers in Morgantown.