WVU holds off William & Mary in opener
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia, a 32 1⁄2-point favorite, had to turn to an unexpected source — its punter — to score a 24-17 come-from-behind victory Saturday over William & Mary before 56,350 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Mountaineers won their 10th straight season opener and 13th consecutive game over an FCS opponent. But in the fourth quarter, with the outcome uncertain and WVU deep in its own territory, the Mountaineers twice needed punter Nick O'Toole to unleash a bomb, and he delivered with a pair of 50-yard punts.
“Shoutout to Nick O'Toole,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “Talk about flipping the field. He was averaging over 50 yards a punt.”
O'Toole averaged 50.6 yards on five punts.
O'Toole's punts bought the offense time to find its rhythm after the Mountaineers fell behind, 17-7, at halftime. West Virginia needed a 69-yard scoring pass from Paul Millard to one-time Alabama receiver Ronald Carswell late in the third quarter and a 2-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Wendell Smallwood with 3:22 left in the game to avoid the upset.
The Mountaineers sealed the victory when senior safety Darwin Cook intercepted William & Mary quarterback Michael Graham on the Tribe's final drive.
The anticipation over who would start at quarterback was answered when coach Dana Holgorsen sent Millard, Geno Smith's backup the past two years, onto the field for the first possession.
Millard and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett had battled for the starting job through camp, and Holgorsen did not tell Millard of his decision until Friday night.
It did not rattle him.
“I slept like a baby,” said Millard, who completed 19 of 25 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown while Trickett, playing two series, was 0 for 2 with a sack.
“The closer it got to gameday, the communication between Paul and me was better,” Holgorsen said. “That is, his experience on seeing the signals and communicating them.”
Millard came out sharp, completing his first eight passes. By then, he and newcomer Charles Sims, the running back transfer from Houston, had given WVU a 7-0 lead.
Using a balanced attack, WVU went downfield on its first possession, driving to the William & Mary 1. That's when Holgorsen called for Sims to negotiate his way over right tackle.
Sims found the hole clogged, stutter-stepped to move a defender, then cut sharply right and ran untouched into the end zone for the first score.
“I just saw the end zone,” Sims said.
The teams traded scoreless possessions before William & Mary came to life. The Tribe set up deep in WVU territory after receiver Tre McBride made a leaping grab of a Graham pass at the 3.
Two plays later, Graham rolled out and found Darnell Laws running loose in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-7 tie.
That quieted the crowd as the game rolled into the second quarter.
The Tribe called on the same play, Graham lofting a pass high and deep and McBride going up to make an even more spectacular catch at the 2.
A couple of plays netted minus-3 yards, but Graham scrambled on the next play, saw an opening, drove toward the end zone and got in, putting William & Mary ahead, 14-7.
John Carpenter added a 29-yard field goal to give the Tribe a 17-7 halftime advantage.
Whatever Holgorsen told his team at halftime worked. The Mountaineers came out with a new outlook. Upping the tempo with Millard, West Virginia drove the field but settled for a 22-yard field goal from Josh Lambert to cut the deficit to 17-10.
After a missed William & Mary field goal, Millard found Carswell running open beyond the secondary for a 69-yard touchdown that sent the game into the fourth quarter tied at 17-17.
Bob Hertzel is a freelance writer.