West Virginia's Big East title hopes take damaging blow
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's problems on special teams finally proved to be its downfall and made the Mountaineers' road to a Big East championship that much harder.
Louisville's Andrew Johnson returned a blocked field goal for an 82-yard touchdown to spark the Cardinals' upset of No. 24 West Virginia, 38-35, on Saturday afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium.
"This one wasn't very hard to figure out," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "You lose the turnover battle, you go 0-2 on field goals - that gets you beat."
Kicker Tyler Bitancurt, who had already pulled a 32-yard attempt wide left in the third quarter, lined up for a 23-yard try on the fourth quarter's first play.
Louisville's Adrian Bushell came over the right side of the West Virginia line to block the kick. The ball bounced into Johnson's hands, and he took off down the right sideline to the dismay of the 57,287 in attendance. Johnson's touchdown gave the Cardinals a 31-21 lead.
It was the first blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against West Virginia since Virginia Tech's Vincent Fuller took one 74 yards in 2004.
"You march all the way down the field and get one blocked for a touchdown -- that's a 10-point swing," Holgorsen said. "If you look at the score, that means something. If that wouldn't have happened, we would have gotten the points, moved on, and we'd probably be pretty happy right now."
Down 24-21, West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) drove 73 yards to the Louisville 6. On third-and-2, quarterback Geno Smith's pass to Stedman Bailey fell incomplete in the end zone, which led to the blocked kick.
Holgorsen said it was a run-pass option and that Smith should have handed off.
"They gave us the look we wanted on the outside," Smith said. "It was one-on-one. I think the defensive back had good leverage.
"Maybe I should have handed it off. They had a couple guys in the box, but I should have trusted it, handed it off and see where it would have got us."
West Virginia tried to get back in the game on its next drive, but turned the ball over. Smith tried to set up a screen, but the ball slipped out of his hands.
After a Louisville three-and-out, Smith got another chance. He engineered an eight-play, 96-yard touchdown drive to pull WVU within three.
Shawne Alston capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown, running over a defender and his own offensive lineman, Tyler Rader, in the process.
On the next drive, Louisville (5-4, 3-1) faced a fourth-and-1 on the West Virginia 43 with 5:13 left in the fourth quarter. Cardinals running back Dominique Brown went right and appeared to be stopped short of the marker, but he spun off a defender for 2 yards and a fresh set of downs.
It was the same play the Cardinals used in the first quarter that sprung Brown for a 55-yard run to set up Louisville's first touchdown.
"I saw the running back's feet stop, and I figured we had it," defensive tackle Julian Miller said. "Next thing you know, I get up out of the pile, look up and they're spotting the ball a couple inches past the first down."
Brown capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown, putting the Cardinals up 10 with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter. The drive covered 66 yards and took 7:03 off the clock.
After West Virginia scored to pull within three once more, Brown recovered the onside kick to seal the win.