The victory extended the winning streak to four, provided a November sweep and continued to build the late-season momentum missing from past WVU teams. It wasn’t pretty, fancy or exceptional. It was, in fact, little more than a pair of teams, one underachieving and one risking such status with a loss, simply battling out the tail end of the season.
But it moved the Mountaineers to 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12 and helped to further distance West Virginia from the bottom five of the league. One could argue West Virginia is the best of the worst, or the worst of the best. The truth is, it’s somewhere in the middle, with the Mountaineers being neither close to the top three of the league, nor nearing the also-ran status of the likes of Kansas and Iowa State that was the greatest of fears following the O-for-October.
The team has proven it rebounded from the difficult slate to piece together a thus-far solid season. Behind a crisp second half, West Virginia dispatched a solid but overmatched ISU team bent on sending lame duck head coach Paul Rhoads out with a win. Instead, it went home with a seventh loss in eight games while WVU rode the running game and a pair of big pass plays to Shelton Gibson to handily grab fifth place in the league.
Gibson finished with a career-best 148 yards receiving, bettering his previous mark of 130 set against Georgia Southern in the opener this year. Skyler Howard kept drives alive with some nifty footwork and field vision while completing 12 of 26 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. Howard also ran for a 32-yard score, while Wendell Smallwood finished with 72 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. On defense, West Virginia forced two turnovers, both interceptions to extend their Big 12-lead to 21 on the season. The picks, courtesy of K.J. Dillon and Daryl Worley, kept WVU on pace to finish in the top three nationally in the statistic.
In all, the Mountaineers never truly allowed Iowa State to threaten, even when the Cyclones were running well early. Later, with a multi-score lead and ISU forced to throw, the bend-don’t-break turned more attacking, and finished with five sacks of Joel Lanning. Iowa State ended with 284 yards, well below their 419-yard season average and below the 400 mark they eclipsed in seven of their last nine games. WVU also controlled a very good special teams unit, winning that side of the ball with excellent coverage and Gibson’s 53 yard return that set up one of three Josh Lambert field goals. It was one off his career-high and the most made in a single game since Lambert hit three against Georgia Southern.
For how slowly it started, it warmed the heart – and likely the listed 42,446 in attendance – to finish the home slate with three straight wins and a 6-1 mark overall. It put some of the polish back on Mountaineer Field after West Virginia managed a home record of just 10-9 over their first three seasons of Big 12 play. The 6-1 finish is by far the best in the new conference – the only other winning home record was 4-3 in the inaugural 2012 season – and matches the best since the 7-0 mark in 2009.
It all combined for a fitting end to the career of the twenty seniors still with the program, the ones who guided West Virginia into a new era, and saw it through a series of growing pains both in this season and previous ones. Because while indelible won’t be a synonym associated with the now-annual Thanksgiving weekend “tradition” that is Iowa State-West Virginia, those seniors deserved a hearty and heartfelt farewell, and got just that.
Make no mistake, this season won’t be deemed a success, and certainly not anything more than that, without a win in the regular season finale’ at Kansas State and perhaps a bowl victory as well. Those are the goals that remain, the latter of which this upperclass hasn’t been able to check off since their freshman season and the Orange Bowl title. But for a day filled with dark, if not dusty, painted on the sky, the singing of Country Roads brought teardrops to quite a few eyes.