Fumble return ignites WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Just when it seemed like West Virginia had no momentum, the defense came up big.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jewone Snow's 83-yard fumble return turned the tide and propelled the Mountaineers to a 43-16 victory over Connecticut in the Big East opener for both teams Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium.
"It was a game-changer," Snow said. "The momentum completely shifted over to our side."
Coach Dana Holgorsen told his team it was one play away from breaking open the game, and the defense took it to heart.
Trailing 10-9, the Huskies drove to the West Virginia 13-yard line. As quarterback Johnny McEntee dropped back to pass, the pocket collapsed, forcing him to scramble left.
As he spun to pick up an extra yard, cornerback Pat Miller put his helmet on the ball, sending it into the air. Snow caught it and sprinted down the sideline to the Connecticut 12 before being caught from behind.
"I didn't even know Snow had the ball until he was 30 yards down field," Miller said.
It was the longest fumble return for West Virginia since 1993, when Mike Collins returned one for 97 yards for a touchdown against Missouri.
"By the time I got to the other 40 or 30, they caught up with me," Snow laughed. "I tightened up, but I tried to keep going though."
Two plays later, quarterback Geno Smith connected with Tavon Austin for a 12-yard touchdown to put West Virginia up, 17-9. Smith said the turnover provided a boost for the sideline.
"In college football, those things happen," Smith said. "That's something that turned the game. You could tell just the momentum shift that happened."
Smith finished with another big statistical day, completing 27 of 45 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns. It's the second-highest, single-game yardage total in West Virginia history behind Smith's 463-yard performance two weeks ago against LSU.
After the defense forced a Connecticut three-and-out on the next possession, Smith connected with Stedman Bailey near the sideline. Bailey made Ty-Meer Brown miss and outran the Huskies defense for an 84-yard touchdown to increase the Mountaineers' lead to 15 points.
The teams traded possessions before Connecticut (2-4, 0-1) found itself pinned on its own 6. McEntee faced a heavy blitz and was sacked for a safety by Snow and Bruce Irvin.
The Mountaineers finished with a season-high five sacks. They had recorded three through the first five games of the season.
"It's the best it's been all year," Holgorsen said of the pass rush.
West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) scored 23 points in the third quarter. The Mountaineers have outscored their opponents, 89-23, in the third this season.
The Mountaineers got off to another slow start. West Virginia's first four offensive drives ended in a field goal, turnover and two punts.
West Virginia started at Connecticut's 45 with 5:03 left in the second quarter after punt returner Tavon Austin was taken down by Tevrin Brandon with a horse-collar tackle. Seven plays later, freshman Dustin Garrison found a hole, dodged a defender, then dragged a tackler into the end zone as the Mountaineers retook the lead, 10-6.
The Mountaineers tried to add to their lead before the end of the half, but Smith was stopped for a loss on a fourth-down sneak at the Huskies' 40 with 55 seconds left. Connecticut drove 53 yards in eight plays, and David Teggart added a 22-yard field goal to pull the Huskies within one, 10-9, as time expired.Additional Information:
Inside the Mountaineers
Junior quarterback Geno Smith did something Saturday that he hasn't done all year: He took a snap under center.
Smith hurried West Virginia to the line on a fourth-and-1 from the Connecticut 40-yard line with just under a minute to go in the first half and tried to run a quick quarterback sneak. He was stopped for a 1-yard loss.
'(We) never worked on that,' Smith said. 'That was something I totally ad-libbed, and it turned out it didn't work for us. It's something that backfired and something that I shouldn't have done in that situation.'
• Redshirt freshman Michael Molinari replaced redshirt junior Corey Smith as the punter yesterday. Smith was averaging 38.5 yards per punt but has been inconsistent.
Molinari averaged 43 yards on five punts and twice pinned Connecticut inside its 10. His 41-yard coffin corner punt pinned Connecticut at the 2 in the second quarter, and a 46-yard punt to the Huskies' 6 led to a safety.
• Before the game, West Virginia played a video tribute in memory of Milan 'Mike' Puskar, who died Friday after a battle with cancer. Puskar, the cofounder of Mylan Laboratories Inc. and big-time donor to the university, was 77.
'We gave the game ball to the family of Mr. Mike Puskar for everything he has done,' Holgorsen said after the game. 'I got a chance to get to know him, and he will be missed.'
West Virginia's football stadium, Milan Puskar Stadium, is named after him.