West Virginia rallies to dump Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Down by three points and facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on a snowy Saturday, Dana Holgorsen didn't hesitate.
No. 25 West Virginia was going for the lead and putting the ball -- and possibly its Big East title hopes in what might be its last year in the conference -- in the hands of quarterback Geno Smith.
Smith didn't run the play as it was called, but the junior improvised well enough and dived headfirst into the end zone, as West Virginia rallied for a 41-31 victory over Rutgers.
"I just made a decision," Holgorsen said, noting that his defense played so well in the second half in shutting out the Scarlet Knights (5-3, 2-2) that he felt the unit would get the ball back for him even if Smith was stopped.
Smith, who threw two second-half touchdowns to help West Virginia (6-2, 2-1) post its 17th straight win over Rutgers, made sure the play worked. It was a play-action design that had worked in other games, but Holgorsen said Smith hesitated making the throw.
"It was just me and the safety, and I had to beat him to the goal line," said Smith, who finished 20 of 31 for 218 yards, including TD throws of 19 yards to Stedman Bailey and 20 to Tavon Austin. "It's 11 guys out there on the field battling for you, and I wanted to be the guy to make that touchdown because my teammates did a great job of taking me out of bad situations."
Austin also scored on an 80-yard run, and Shawne Alston scored on runs of 52 and 2 yards for West Virginia, which the day before accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 next season. The timing for the move may be up in the air -- the Big East has said the team must stay through 2014 -- but the Mountaineers' players are heading for the door.
"This is our last year playing in the Big East," linebacker Najee Goode said. "When they think back (about) who were the last Big East champs, we want it to be us."
Gary Nova threw two touchdown passes, and Jawan Jamison scored on runs of 1 and 18 yards for the Scarlet Knights, who were blanked in the second half after putting up a season-high for points in the first.
"Credit goes to West Virginia. They found a way to get it done. We didn't," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "We will eventually -- it has been a long road. We will get it."
The game turned on a fake field goal by Rutgers early in the fourth quarter. Leading, 31-28, the Scarlet Knights drove to the West Virginia 11. On fourth-and-7, Schiano decided to fake a 28-yard field-goal attempt. Holder Pat Kivlehan had receiver Brandon Coleman open in the end zone for a split-second, but Darwin Cook hustled back and broke up the pass as it hit Coleman's hands.
Smith then led the Mountaineers on an 89-yard touchdown drive, hitting Bailey for 32 yards to get the drive going and Brad Starks for 23 to get first-and-goal at the 8. Dustin Garrison gained 3 yards on first down, and Alston got 4 on second to put the ball at the 1. Alston was stuffed on third down, then Smith took the snap in the shotgun, looked for a receiver and took off around right end, diving headfirst for the score. West Virginia missed the extra point.
"He did what a quarterback does," Starks said. "He led us to victory."
The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving Rutgers the ball at its 40. Nova lost control of the ball on a second-down pass attempt, and Julian Miller recovered his second fumble of the game at the Rutgers 37. Three plays later, Smith found Austin along the left sideline for the game's final points.
Before the game, paralyzed former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand led the Scarlet Knights onto the field. He was hurt last October in a game against Army; this was his first time back on the sideline.
The contest was played in brutal conditions: A nor'easter caused strong winds and a mixture of rain and blowing snow. Trucks with snow plows cleaned the field often, but at times the yard-line numbers were not visible.