A field somewhat scorched by the guests from the Big East. "They just made a lot of big plays," MLB Quinton Culberson said. "They didn't make small plays, it was a lot of big plays." In fact 18 of WVU's 54 offensive snaps produced gains of ten or more yards. Such explosiveness contributed to 406 total Mountaineer yards and an average gain of 7.5 yards each time they hiked the hogskin.
"We were somewhat overwhelmed by the speed they had," said State Coach Sylvester Croom.
Not surprised, though. The Bulldogs knew West Virginia thrived on hard running, fast reads, and quick cuts. There just wasn't much MSU was able to do slow them down. Not back Steve Slaton, who produced 185 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Not quarterback Patrick White with 76 ground yards and two scores. Not even fullback Owen Schmitt who bulled into the end zone twice himself. It was all fast and forward for this backfield.
Especially Slaton, who took advantage of aggressive blocking to exploit openings for major gains. He did go down a couple of times for losses, but those were obvious exceptions to the rule this day. "We were flailing and grabbing never able to really lock up run through him," Croom said.
With such big-play potential at ground level the Mountaineers only threw when necessary, or just for a change of pace. White was 6-of-9 for 92 yards. Even the one TD not scored by the WVU offense reflected the team's cumulative athleticism, when Vaughn Rivers scampered 50 yards on a punt return with 67 seconds left on the game clock for the final margin of victory.
"Their speed is the strength of their team," Croom repeated. "They have great speed and great change-of-direction. We don't see too many people in this conference with that speed."
Despite the velocity deficit, the Dogs were still blaming themselves for letting this one get away. And indeed the home team showed surprising poise under such circumstances. Such as giving up touchdowns on WVU's first two turns with the ball. Or allowing another quick scoring drive to open the second half and re-double the deficit. Or, after losing starting quarterback Omarr Conner to a groin pull at 6:42 of the third period. The Dogs kept coming after the visitors and put together their best drives of the day.
Thus DE Titus Brown's comment on wasted opportunities to keep this contest in contention. "That's terrible, man. That's very terrible." He was referring to blown defensive chances and drive-breaking failures by the offense in the red zone. The Bulldogs missed a modest field goal in the first quarter, and had fourth-quarter throws end up in the wrong team's hands on deflections…once by a MSU receiver in the end zone. "You can go back to that first quarter, the first half," Croom said. "There were several plays in the passing game where if we had a little more time or come up with the catch it's a different ball game."
Quarterback Mike Henig, who took over after Conner's injury, was more blunt. "We played good enough to win today," he said. "Today we got some good breaks, they got a lot of penalties and they gave us every opportunity. We just didn't step up at the right times and convert on those opportunities." The Mountaineers did damage their own cause considerably with 11 penalties assessed for 132 yards by the Big East officiating crew.
State planned to mix things up against a Mountaineer defense that could also run but wasn't as physical as previous top-ten opponents. So Conner threw on the first three first downs; none were caught but the first earned a pass interference. Halfback Arnil Stallworth ran for 16 yards and another move of the chains, with State getting as far as the WVU 25-yard line before a sack of Conner. He would be bagged three more times and hit many more. Adam Carlson's 48-yard field goal attempt drifted wide-right.
Five plays later West Virginia had gone all the other way, mostly one the quick feet of receiver Darius Reynaud. On second down he should have been caught in the backfield on a reverse; instead Reynaud slipped the scrum and zig-zagged to State's 42-yard line for a gain of 26. A screen pass to Reynaud produced another skittering run down to the Bulldog five-yard line, where Schmitt could take care of the remaining distance with a bolt up the middle at 8:11.
The second scoring drive took somewhat longer, eight snaps in all to go 75 yards. Slaton did most of the damage on dashes of 16 and 14 yards before the first quarter ended. On 3rd-and-4 at State's five-yard line White faked the right-handoff and bootlegged around the left end to double the Mountaineer lead at 14:12.
A 41-yard kickoff return by Derek Pegues, with the Mountaineer punter preventing a touchdown, had State starting on their 49 and a dump-off to FB Bryson Davis netted a new set of downs, with time for once Conner overthrew a wide-open Will Prosser at the 10-yard line. On 4th-and-5 Conner was sacked again, as the Mountaineers were coming hard off the corners and beating the Dog tackles with unnerving ease. But as Croom said, "They were blitzing not so much to get sacks as to keep Omarr in the pocket and not let him get on the edge."
Once the Dog defense got up to speed they forced a couple of WVU punts, once on 4th-and-short at the 43-yard line. State took over at the 12-yard line with 4:09 left to halftime. A third-down flip to Lance Long made first down, and on 2nd-and-7 Conner got a throw just over a leaping cornerback at midfield to WR Tony Burks behind for a 45-yard gainer. Conner hit WR Tyler Threadgill in the end zone only to have the play called back by a hold.
Conner shook it off and on 2nd-and-20 stood in long enough to catch Burks running full-speed down the left-hashmarks. Burks caught the ball in-stride at the 15 and was going for the goal when he knocked the ball loose with his own leg. Long was able to fall on the fumble in the end zone at 1:01 for a 14-7 halftime score.
If the Mountaineers were bothered by State's surge before intermission it didn't show. Or slow. Slaton burned off 12 and 15 yards to open the new half, and on 4th-and-1 Schmitt caught State looking for a 11-yard burst around the right corner. Slaton put the ball at the Bulldog ten on a 14-yard catch, and on first down made it look ridiculously easy going untouched through the left side for the touchdown at 10:22.
"Without a doubt that was a fast back," Brown said. "You don't see that type of speed very often. We made plays, we just didn't make good solid tackles."
It wasn't much of a tackle that cost State Conner's services. On 3rd-and-17 at the 39 he had to scramble and was dragged down from behind, injuring the right groin. "I heard it pop when I hit the ground," Conner said. After the Mountaineers missed their own only field goal try Henig was under center, his first action since breaking the left collarbone in the second quarter of the season-opener.
"I wasn't worried about it, my adrenalin was running," Henig said. It helped to have HB Brandon Thornton take his first handoff a dozen yards, either. A third-down throw was wide but a blow to Henig's face got a free first down the hard way. He threw to Jamayel Smith for 20 yards and to Burks for 21 more. On the first play of the last quarter, from WVU's six-yard line, Henig fired a bullet that hit Burks, open behind the goal line, square in the hands.
And it bounced off-and-up. Burks managed to knock it on up-and-over and into the hands of safety Eric Wicks in the end zone. "I just couldn't pull it in for one strange reason or another," Burks said. "I won't say I took it too lightly. The ball comes hard in the red zone, and I just underestimated the velocity."
Further frustration loomed. After self-stopping a series on two personal fouls the Mountaineers punted and State took over inside midfield. A 20-yard hookup with Prosser got to the 25-yard line, but on the next play Henig was tagged in the pocket while releasing for the underneath receiver. "As I was throwing he hit my elbow. I knew what was going to happen as soon as he hit me." Bobby Hathaway caught the carom at WVU's 10-yard line and returned it 29 more yards at 8:02.
Less than two minutes later the margin was 28-7. On 3rd-and-6 White evaded a rush and rambled 46 yards for the touchdown. Yet State wasn't quite done as Henig put together a 10-play drive, the first seven passes out of the shotgun set which made the blitzes less a factor. A 17-yard strike to TE Jason Husband made it first-and-goal at the one-yard line, and while it took three shots Anthony Dixon was able to dive over at 5:31.
But slim hopes of a comeback ended mercifully fast, with a 46-yard drive after WVU covered the on-sides kickoff. Schmitt did the honors with a five-yard carry at 3:02 for a 35-14 score. The game settled, Croom let Tray Rutland take over at quarterback. He lasted one play, sacked and taking a shot to the knee that put him out. Ty Evans was waved in for his first college action only to be sacked and fumble. Evans fell on the loose ball but it didn't matter because McAdam's punt from the back line was run back by Rivers.
State managed 306 yards of offense, but just 56 of that came on the ground. Stallworth netted 40 yards on nine carries before hurting the same ankle sprained at UAB and leaving the dirty work to Dixon and Thornton.
Conner had the better stats, 10-of-19 passing with 135 yards and a touchdown. Henig was 7-of-15 for 115 yards and the two hard-luck turnovers. Burks got 118 yards on his four catches, his fourth 100-yard game this season, and eight other Dogs caught balls.
"We had plenty of opportunities," Henig insisted. "We had a chance to make it 21-28 at one point, that's just one of those things."
But a thing the Bulldogs have experienced too consistently this season, falling behind and never catching up. Even setting aside WVU's two icing touchdowns in the final minutes there never really seemed serious possibility of State coming all the way back. Not when the Mountaineers appeared capable of picking up and running away when they really needed to.
"They just had big plays and big long runs against us," said Culberson. "That's what broke it open."