TAMPA, Fla. - High school teammates Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey have played a lot of football together. But Thursday night's 26-yard connection on a fourth-and-10 at the South Florida 42 gave No. 23 West Virginia a chance to pull out a victory at Raymond James Stadium.
Tyler Bitancurt then gave the Mountaineers at least a share of the Big East championship when the junior connected on a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
WVU (9-3, 5-2 Big East) must now hope for a Cincinnati win against Connecticut on Saturday. A win by the Bearcats would put the title in a three-way tie between WVU, Louisville and the Bearcats with the Mountaineers earning the league's BCS bid by virtue of being the higher ranked team in the final BCS standings.
West Virginia kicker Tyler Bitancurt, front, and holder Michael Molinari reacts as Bitancurt missed a field goal in the first half. Bitancurt kicked the game-winning field goal against South Florida. The Mountaineers won, 30-27.
The Mountaineers took the second half kickoff and marched down to the USF 30. But a first-and-10 completion to Devon Brown ended up with a fumble that was recovered by the Bulls at their 2-yard line.
Eleven plays, and one questionable pass interference call, later the Bulls pulled to within three, 13-10, on Maikon Bonani's 32-yard field goal.
WVU regained the momentum, however, 14 seconds later when Tavon Austin returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown - his second return of the year - to push the Mountaineers back into a 10-point, 20-10, advantage.
West Virginia 30, South Florida 27
WVU (9-3) 0 13 7 10 - 30
USF (5-7) 0 7 6 14 - 27
WVU: Tyler Bitancurt 23 field goal, 13:29, 2nd
WVU: Pat Miller 52 interception return (Bitancurt kick), 8:20, 2nd
USF: Sterling Griffin 20 pass from B.J. Daniels (Maikon Bonani kick), 5:13, 2nd
WVU: Bitancurt 42 field goal, 0:22, 2nd
USF: Bonani 32 field goal, 10:26, 3rd
WVU: Tavon Austin 90 kickoff return (Bitancurt kick), 10:12, 3rd
USF: Bonani 20 field goal, 1:42, 3rd
USF: Daniels 1 run (Bonani kick), 10:01, 4th
USF: JaQuez Jenkins 25 interception return (Bonani kick), 9:49, 4th
WVU: Dustin Garrison 5 run (Bitancurt kick), 5:09, 4th
WVU: Bitancurt 28 field goal, 0:01, 4th
WVU: Rushing yards: 28-131. Passing yards: 221. Total yards: 352. Passing: 24-37-2. Fumbles-lost: 1-1. Penalties: 16-158. Punts-avg: 4-32.0.
USF: Rushing yards: 39-169. Passing yards: 225. Total yards: 394. Passing: 21-44-1. Fumbles-lost: 1-1. Penalties: 14-120. Punts-avg: 5-33.6
WVU: Rushing: Garrison 16-87, Smith 5-20, Austin 4-13, Alston 5-7. Passing: Smith 23-35-2, 237 yards. Receiving: Bailey 7-80, Austin 7-54, Woods 4-38, Brown 1-27, Urban 1-16, McCartney 1-16, McCartney 1-11, Garrison 1-11, Alston 1-0.
USF: Rushing: Scott 14-92, Murray 12-34, Daniels 10-23, Lamar 1-22, Shaw 2-0. Passing: Daniels 21-44-1, 226 yards. Receiving: Landi 4-67, Welch 4-45, Griffin 3-37, Marc 3-29, Davis 2-18, Love 1-6, Scott 1-6, Miller 1-0, Murray 1-(minus-4).
That would be the only positive moment for the visitors as WVU's powerful offense was on the natural turf at Raymond James Stadium for only nine plays in the third quarter - two ending in turnovers - while South Florida pulled to within a touchdown, 20-13, on Bonani's 20-yard field goal that came after a Smith pass was picked off at the WVU 31 with 6:28 left in the quarter.
South Florida pulled even with their Big East rivals in the fourth quarter when Daniels culminated a 15-play, 76-yard drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak for the touchdown with 10:01 on the clock. Bonani, who had not missed a PAT all season, made good on the point after again and the Bulls celebrated the 20-20 tie. Things went from bad to worse 12 seconds later when the Bulls' JaQuez Jenkins picked off a Smith pass, his second interception of the half, and returned it 16 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Smith and company finally got untracked and scored the offense's first touchdown of the game with freshman Dustin Garrison rushed over from 5-yards out to finish off an 11-play, 73-yard drive that was aided by a USF personal foul on a second-and-27 play from the Mountaineers' 39. Bitancurt's third PAT of the night evened the score at 27 with 5:09 left in the game.
West Virginia turned to its defense and special teams to take a 13-7 halftime lead.
Senior Willie Millhouse got things rolling for the players in old gold and blue when he slipped through the Bulls' punting unit to block Bonani's at the USF 11. Senior Ricky Kovatch picked up the loose ball and returned it to the 5.
However, three plays netted only 4 yards and the Mountaineers had to settle for a 23-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal - Bitancurt had missed earlier from 38 yards out when his attempt hit the right upright.
The defense was at it again 5 minutes later.
This time junior Pat Miller picked the best time of his career to come up with his first career interception at the WVU 48. The speedy defensive back followed a convoy of blockers into the end zone to give the visitors a 9-0 lead. Bitancurt's PAT upped that margin to 10-0 with 8:20 remaining in the half.
South Florida finally got its offense untracked on the Bulls' ensuing possession as senior B.J. Daniels marched his team 80 yards on nine plays, hitting Sterling Griffin from 20 yards out to put the hosts on the board with 5:13 left before the intermission.
Neither team could move the football on its next possession with WVU taking over at its 34 with 3:08 left until the half.
This time Smith marched the Mountaineers down to the USF 24, but WVU had to settle for a 42-yard Bitancurt field goal to push its lead to 13-7 at the intermission.
West Virginia's offense, which had entered the final regular game of the season leading the Big East with an average of 468.3 yards per game, was held to a measly 138 yards in the first half by the Bulls' defense and Smith, the conference passing leader, was only able to complete 10-of-15 attempts for 75 yards.
Time and time again the Mountaineer offense would shoot itself in the foot as WVU made good on only 2-of-9 third down attempts compared of 4-of-10 for Daniels and the Bulls.