WVU gets its 1st test - and passes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Three games into the season, West Virginia is undefeated, unbowed and no longer untested.
For the first time, the No. 8 Mountaineers didn't score on their first possession. Underrated Maryland, in fact, tied the game, 14-14, in the second quarter - the first time that has happened against WVU this season after it won its first two games by a collective 111-46 margin.
Pushed to the limit, quarterback Geno Smith, receiver Tavon Austin and an opportunistic defense were the difference Saturday in a 31-21 win before 58,504 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“We didn't play very good, but we played the best team we faced this year by a longshot,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I don't think we put our best foot forward, but we won, and that's what good teams do.”
Smith, who was sacked for the first time this season, finished 30 of 43 for 338 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland's eighth-ranked defense.
Smith was sacked twice and hit hard on several other occasions, but he didn't turn the ball over for the third straight game. When he had time to throw, he was quick to locate Austin, who made 13 catches for 179 yards and three touchdowns.
“He was a bit off. They got to him and rattled him a little bit. But he was still not bad by any stretch of the imagination,” Holgorsen said of Smith, who has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just 22 incompletions this season. “Taking care of the football is what won this game.”
The passing game was all the Mountaineers (3-0) had offensively. With senior Shawne Alston sidelined with a thigh injury, they rushed for a season-low 25 yards, putting pressure squarely on Smith and the passing game.
“When we handed the ball off, I didn't feel good about it,” Holgorsen said.
It didn't help that Maryland (2-2) knocked Smith around using an assortment of blitzes.
“We didn't know what they were going to do because they hadn't played anybody that runs the formations we run,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “It was really a guessing game.”
Despite some blips, Smith guessed right most of the time.
On his 24-yard touchdown pass to Austin that give WVU a 24-14 lead in the final minute before halftime, Smith beat Maryland's zone defense with a perfect read and hit Austin in stride.
“The man on top of me ran to the sideline. He wasn't even looking at me,” said Austin, who became WVU's career receptions leader. “I just cut it up. By the time he looked at me, I was down the field.”
Defensively, WVU opened with a big play.
Midway into the first quarter, blitzing safety Darwin Cook knocked the ball away from quarterback Perry Hills (Central Catholic) before he could hand-off to running back Brandon Ross. Linebacker Doug Rigg, who made his first start this season, returned the fumble 51 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
It was the first of a season-high three turnovers forced by the Mountaineers.
“Even though we missed a lot of tackles, we had the most turnovers all season,” said Rigg, who tied for the team lead with seven tackles. “We had a lot of opportunities to have more turnovers. We were getting thee and outs. We're improving a little bit each game.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.