Champions Somehow

TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't easy. It wasn't pretty. It was, however, just what West Virginia needed. Tyler Bitancurt hit a 33-yard field goal on the final play, and the Mountaineers came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat USF 30-27 and win a share of their seventh Big East Conference championship.

It will be no more than a share, as Louisville finished its regular season at 5-2 in Big East play, like the Mountaineers. But WVU could still play in a BCS bowl game, and almost certainly will do so if Cincinnati knocks off UConn in those teams' season finale on Saturday.

"I'm the biggest Cincinnati fan right now. Go Munchie," junior quarterback Geno Smith said of his Bearcats' counterpart, Munchie Legaux.

West Virginia players, to a man, said they will be glued to their televisions to watch that one. But that game would not have mattered at all to them had they not found a way to dig out a late win at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night.

Bitancurt's kick, while decisive, was merely the last in a series of must-have plays that allowed the Mountaineers to dig out of a 27-20 deficit, the result of a pick six thrown by Smith, in the final minutes.

But the clutch plays may never have mattered if not for a bone-headed mistake by the Bulls' Ryne Giddins. West Virginia would have faced a fourth-and-7 with the game all but on the line, but Giddins punched a Mountaineer player, drawing a personal foul and moving the chains.

Dustin Garrison scored from five yards away just a few snaps later to tie the game at 27-27. It was WVU's first -- and only -- offensive touchdown of the game.

But USF (5-7, 1-6) star specialist Lindsey Lamar returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Mountaineers' 41-yard line, and the Bulls appeared to be prepared to run the clock down for a potential game-winning field goal when quarterback B.J. Daniels slid down in bounds after running to convert on a third-and-4 play.

Daniels ran again on the next snap, and for the hosts, disaster struck. As he was met by white-clad defenders, WVU's Najee Goode stripped him of possession. Fellow linebacker Doug Rigg recovered for the Mountaineers who celebrated wildly. They still had life.
Offensive Player of the Game
Stedman Bailey
7 receptions
80 yards
26-yarder to set up FG

With time winding down on the ensuing drive -- and West Virginia out of timeouts -- Smith took a sack near midfield to set up an unfavorable down and distance situation. A third-and-10 pass fell incomplete, and following a review, officials picked up a flag that had been thrown for illegal substitution against USF.

Only seconds remained, and so Holgorsen kept his offense on the field for a fourth down try. It worked brilliantly, as Smith found an open Stedman Bailey, who extended his arms and dove to haul in a 26-yard completion. The clock stopped to move the chains with only six seconds left.

Bailey initially appeared to be unable to move. He tried to get up, but fell back down. Teammate Shawne Alston recognized what was occurring, grabbed the receiver and dragged his body onside. That prevented referees from stopping the game due to injury, which would have caused an automatic 10 second runoff and sent the game to overtime.

Instead, Smith was able to spike the ball with 3 seconds to go. That set up Bitancurt, who had already clanged a 38-yarder no good earlier in the game, with a chance to redeem himself. His 33-yard kick was true, and the hero of WVU's 2009 victory over No. 8 Pitt once again ran around wildly to celebrate with nobody in particular.

"If you didn't have a vested interest in who won the game, it was a heck of a football game," USF coach Skip Holtz said.

Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers' first-year head coach, was doused with Gatorade by his players. They ran to the corner of the stadium most heavily populated with West Virginia fans to celebrate. And as they walked back down the tunnel towards their locker room, they screamed happily about the championship they had just won -- the program's seventh outright win or share of a Big East title.

"Give our guys credit for hanging in there and just continuing to play," Holgorsen said.

? It looked for awhile like it might be easy.

West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) was dominant in the opening minutes and held a quick 10-0 lead. But Daniels, who was playing for the first time since sustaining an injury in a loss to Miami, began to improve after an extremely poor start.
Defensive Player of the Game
Julian Miller
4 total tackles
2 tackles for loss
1 pass break-up

Just after WVU took that 10-0 lead on a Pat Miller interception return for a touchdown, Daniels led his team right back. He threw a controversial 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sterling Griffin (who also returned from injury to try to help the Bulls get bowl eligible) that was initially called incomplete but ruled a score after a replay review.

Bitancurt nailed a 42-yard field goal, his second of three successful kicks in the game, and the visitors took a 13-7 lead into the locker room for halftime.

USF again rallied. It stripped the Mountaineers' Devon Brown on the first possession of the second half -- a drive in which WVU had moved into prime scoring position -- and began a march of its own. Maikon Bonani's 32-yard field goal was good and the score was 13-10.

But Tavon Austin returned the ensuing kickoff for a 90-yard touchdown. Momentum was clearly back on West Virginia's sideline.

"I give it to my blockers that set it up," Austin said. "Coach had a good call. I hit the sideline, made a couple of moves and I was gone."

"There were mistakes made and special teams was awful," Holtz said. "The special teams was awful."

Momentum for the Mountaineers was short-lived though. USF drove to the WVU 3-yard line, but Daniels threw incomplete on third down and Holtz had to send on Bonani again. His 20-yard kick was good, and the hosts were within 20-13.

West Virginia punted, and Daniels led a 15 play, 76-yard drive, converting three third downs along the way -- the last on a 1-yard sneak on third-and-goal for a touchdown.

Smith then made what appeared to be a back-breaking error, throwing an interception on the very next play that Jaquez Jenkins returned for an easy 24-yard touchdown. Stunningly, the Bulls led 27-20, setting up the Mountaineers' late heroics.

Bitancurt made three of his four field goals, including the game-winner. That, along with touchdowns from the defense and special teams, helped WVU overcome a poor offensive day. It ran only 66 plays and gained only 364 yards. Garrison's touchdown run was the only offensive TD score for the Mountaineers.

Smith was 23-of-35 for 237 yards. He threw two interceptions. Garrison gained 87 yards on 16 carries. Bailey and Austin caught seven passes each, for 80 and 54 yards, respectively.

For USF, Daniels completed 21 of 44 passes for 226 yards. He threw one touchdown and one pick. Darrell Scott gained 92 yards rushing on 14 carries, but was injured and didn't play late.

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