As the first half wound down, the script seemed all too familiar for the gold-clad WVU fans at Milan Puskar Stadium. As had been the case in recent years, the team's offense started quickly against South Florida before starting to grind to a halt against the Bulls' fast defense. But one momentum-changing play before the break secured what was ultimately a 20-6 win for the hosts on Thursday night.

With his defense beginning to take control and his team facing a 10-3 deficit in the final minute of the second quarter, USF coach Skip Holtz decided the aggressive approach was the right one. After his team received a Mountaineer punt at its own 14-yard line, his quarterback, B.J. Daniels, dropped back to pass.

Holtz's team paid the price.

Daniels was forced to roll to his right to buy further time to throw and made an ill-advised pass downfield that was easily intercepted by WVU safety Robert Sands, who returned the ball all the way to the Bulls' 7-yard line.

One wild play later (a hook-and-lateral in which Jock Sanders caught a quick screen pass and flipped it to Noel Devine, who ran in for a touchdown), the Mountaineers had a 17-3 lead that would be more than enough to secure the outcome.

"Last time I called one of those trick plays, it was a double pass. You'd think I was killing people at the grocery store," said West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart, recalling a failed play that was intercepted by Maryland in his team's third game of the season. "This was a great call."

The two-play sequence seemed to take the fight out of a South Florida team that fell to 3-3 overall and 0-2 in Big East Conference play with the loss. The Bulls had won three of their last four against WVU coming into Thursday night's game, including a 2006 upset in Morgantown.

Much like each of those last four meetings, this one was all about defense for both teamsl. The Mountaineers' 20 points were the program's most against USF since the programs first met in 2005, but the Bulls' defense was stingy enough to force the hosts into two field goals on three trips into the red zone.

Likewise, No. 25 West Virginia's defense played at a high level. It held its opposition to only 202 yards of total offense.

Daniels, the quarterback who torched WVU to the tune of 232 yards passing and 104 yards rushing in last season's meeting in Tampa (a 30-19 USF win), was intercepted three times, sacked four times and had only four yards rushing on 14 carries.

"We got home when we blitzed. Last year, we didn't," Stewart said succinctly. "We leveraged the ball, and last year, we didn't. Those guys can run, so if you don't leverage, you're in trouble.

"This defense is really starting to gel, and I'm really proud of them."

Early on, it didn't look like the Mountaineers would need another heroic performance from their defense, which ranks among the nation's best in both total defense and scoring defense.

WVU came out of the gates quickly, taking the ball at its own 20-yard line for the opening possession and marching to the Bulls' 12 without even so much as facing a third down.

But a pair of incomplete passes from quarterback Geno Smith, sandwiched around a rush of two yards from Devine, put an end to the drive. Tyler Bitancurt booted a 27-yard field goal cleanly through the uprights for a 3-0 lead for the hosts.

After a USF punt, the Mountaineers quickly went back to work. This time, it took only nine plays for the offense to go 80 yards, including completions of 19 and 10 yards to convert on third down situations. Smith found Bradley Starks wide open for a 31-yard touchdown to make it 10-0, and West Virginia appeared to be in control.

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"I certainly give WVU a lot of credit tonight for the game that they played," said Holtz. "I thought their passing game was really impressive, and I thought they did some good things early and moved the ball down the field."

? But South Florida's defense began to stiffen, and its offense started to find its stride.

The Bulls took advantage of good field position from a 55-yard kickoff return by Lindsey Lamar after the Starks touchdown catch, as Maikon Bonani hit a 36-yard field goal to punctuate a drive that spanned both the first and second quarters to draw the visitors within 10-3.

The Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0), who had looked so solid offensively in the first quarter, couldn't get on track in the second period. They didn't have a first down in the quarter until Smith hit Stedman Bailey for a 32-yard gain on the first play of a drive that started with 1:43 left until halftime.

"I thought that [defensive coordinator] Mark Snyder, our defensive staff and our players made some great adjustments in the second quarter and second half to do some good things defensively," said Holtz, the Bulls' first-year head coach.

Indeed, momentum was clearly on USF's side as West Virginia punted at the end of its next series of downs. Looking to be aggressive, Holtz called timeout with 1:02 left on the clock to force the punt in the hopes of getting one last score before the intermission.

The strategy backfired. Daniels' costly interception came on the next play, and after the hook-and-lateral from Sanders to Devine worked like a charm, WVU had a 17-3 lead with 35 seconds left in the half.

It was a play that was odd for the official scorers: Smith was credited with a 7-yard touchdown pass; Sanders was credited with a reception for a loss of four yards; Devine was credited with 11 receiving yards and a score, but no catch.

All the Bulls were left with was a chance to wonder what might have been if not for the momentum-changing interception from Daniels.

To its credit, South Florida pulled itself up off the deck long enough to go on an 11-play, 50-yard drive to start the third quarter that ended with a 47-yard Bonani field goal that brought the visitors back within 17-6.

But Stewart's squad followed that up with a classic clock-killing drive. The way in which the Mountaineers did so was a bit unconventional, however. Smith hit receiver Tavon Austin for 29 yards on a third-and-17, and the sophomore signal-caller found Starks for 14 more yards to pick up a third-and-12 only three plays later.

A series of five straight runs by Ryan Clarke served to further take time off the scoreboard, and a drive of almost 7:00 culminated in a 24-yard Bitancurt field goal that would set the final margin.

"The most proud I am of our offense is the way we moved that ball," Stewart said. "We controlled that clock and had a big drive in the third quarter. It was a total team victory."

With the win, West Virginia evened the all-time series between the Big East foes at 3-3. It has won two of three match-ups with the Bulls under Stewart.

Smith was 24-of-31 passing for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Ten of those completions went to Sanders, who managed only 31 yards receiving.

Smith completed 13 straight passes in one span between the second and third quarters, which was good enough to tie a school record for most consecutive completions that was first set by Marc Bulger in a 1999 game against East Carolina. Only a drop in the end zone by Sanders in the third quarter kept Smith from setting a new mark.

For the Bulls, running back Moise Plancher had 63 yards rushing on 11 carries. No other USF player had more than four yards on the ground. Daniels was 20-of-30 through the air for 119 yards and three interceptions.

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