It had been downright ugly for the first 50 minutes of this Friends of Coal Bowl. But it got even uglier on one West Virginia series, where a series of penalties and fumbles left the Mountaineers, facing a 21-6 deficit at the time, having to punt the ball away from their own end zone on a fourth-and-30.
Smith, the sophomore quarterback, had enough. He came to the sidelines and, in a very vocal manner, let his teammates know what he thought of their lackluster play, which had kept WVU out of the end zone to that point and had allowed the signal-caller to be sacked on three occasions.
Whatever Smith said, it worked. In only his second complete game as the Mountaineers' quarterback, he led touchdown drives of 96 and 98 yards on back-to-back possessions, then calmly converted a 2-point play in the final seconds to send the game to overtime.
He almost single-handedly vanquished an inspired Marshall team. A 17-yard scramble on a third-and-11 play on the first of those two touchdown drives may get lost in a series of phenomenal pass plays, but it was downright critical.
Smith made quick decisions and delivered the ball with confidence in the team's two-minute offense. He spread the ball around to several receivers, worked both the middle of the field and the sidelines and gave the Thundering Herd fits when it mattered most.
In short, he played inspired football in a 32-of-45 performance that netted 316 passing yards and a touchdown. The sophomore showed the sort of leadership teammates had said he has exhibited all offseason on the final two drives. In the process, he etched his name into Mountaineer lore.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME:
A week after pitching a shutout against Coastal Carolina, things weren't as pretty for the Mountaineer defenders against Marshall. But when it mattered most, players like Leonard made things happen.
Leonard finished second on the team with nine total tackles, including one tackle for loss. After the Herd had exploited West Virginia across the middle of the field early, the senior helped limit Marshall's ability to do so late.
Leonard was a big part of the unit that shut down Marshall at the end of regulation and in overtime and allowed the offense to complete its stunning comeback. For that, he earns our nod as the leader of the defense.
WVU's increased pace allowed it to run 87 plays in the contest – a large number even for an overtime game. That contrasted to just 56 snaps for the Herd.
One of the keys to ramping up the offense was the change in signaling methodology at the half. In the opening stanzas, WVU employed a new way of calling plays. Offensive coaches held up a color card and a number card, which referred to a specific play on wristbands worn by each player. That prevented Herd coaches from stealing signs, but also served to confuse West Virginia's players. In the second half, the Mountaineers returned to their original signaling ways, but shielded the Herd with towels held up by managers.
"That was the best catch I ever made," Johnson said after the contest. "Not just for the situation. I wasn't sure if I got my foot down or not -- I just caught the ball and tried to drag them."
He did just that, and when Sanders cradled the two-point throw at the back of the end zone one play later, the Mountaineers were back in the contest.
"I hope that showed the coaches they can trust me and have confidence in me," said Johnson, who played extra snaps with Tyler Urban out of the game due to injury.