The Mountaineers trailed the entire first half and for most of the fourth quarter before last-minute heroics sent the majority of the 62,891 fans at standing room only Mountaineer Field home happy. WVU avenged four consecutive defeats at the hands of the Terrapins, including last season's humiliating 41-7 thrashing in the Toyota Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
Cooper's heroics somewhat overshadowed a brilliant game by Marshall, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 161 yards and ran 10 times for 51 more yards, none bigger than his scramble for six yards with 12 seconds left to put Cooper into range for the game-ending field goal.
"Brad's kicks got us some big points, but Rasheed was just terrific for us out there tonight," said a drained but delighted Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez in his post-game remarks. "This may not have been his best day ever for us, statistically, but his leadership on the field was crucial for us all night long."
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen, who suffered his first defeat as his alma mater's head coach at the hands of the Mountaineers, also had words of praise for the WVU quarterback afterward. "We let Marshall do too many things offensively. He was a key for them."
West Virginia also successfully executed a fake punt for a 45-yard gain late in the first half, in addition to Cooper's 3-4 performance on field goals on the cool evening. WVU's defense also got into the act, as the Mountaineers sacked Maryland quarterback Joel Stratham four times, all in the second half.
The final score of 23-20 mirrored the closeness of the contest statistically, as the Mountaineers barely outgained the Terrapins, 400-385. WVU held the edge in rushing, 194 to 173, and Maryland narrowly won the battle of the airways, 212 to 206. First downs were nearly identical with Maryland winning that category by just one, 25 to 24.
"The fans certainly got their money's worth tonight – a close game between two ranked teams and an exciting finish. It was probably fun for everyone watching [on the nationally telecast coverage of the game via ESPN] but I think I lost a few hairs there at the end [of the game] and I don't have too many left to lose," quipped Rodriguez.
West Virginia won the toss and elected to defer the kick-off to Maryland. After a three-and-out by the Terps, the Mountaineers drove from their own 10 to the Maryland 31 where the drive bogged down. Cooper's 48-yard field goal attempt was wide left – his first and only miss of the evening. The Terps then took over and drove the length of the field to record the game's first touchdown.
Key to the Terps' scoring drive were two completions from Stratham to the fleet-footed Scott Suter, who has torched West Virginia in recent contests, of 22 and 17 yards, respectively. Josh Allen's one-yard run around the left side of the mammoth Maryland offensive line gave the Terps a 7-0 lead with 4:35 remaining in the first quarter.
West Virginia took the ensuing kick-off and mounted a long but fruitless drive of its own. A nifty 32-yard kick-off return by true freshman Brandon Barrett appeared to be much longer, but Barrett was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the WVU 38. Marshall passes to John Pennington, Dee Alston and Miquelle Henderson and runs by tailback Jason Colson put WVU at the Maryland 30. Marshall then went to his favorite target – Chris Henry – for a completion of 16, but Henry was hit hard by Terp senior safety Ray Custis and fumbled. The Terps recovered at their own nine-yard line, and the Mountaineer drive came up empty.
Maryland then mounted its second scoring drive of the half, as Suter picked up 28 yards on a reverse, Allen ran for 19 yards and Stratham hit three different Terp receivers for 29 yards to advance to WVU's 21. A holding call, coupled with a stiffening WVU defense, stopped the Terps at that point. All-ACC kicker Nick Novak then drilled a 38-yard field goal and the Terrapins quieted the mostly partisan home crowd, threatening to take control of the game early as they had done in the last three games against their border state rival.
The teams then exchanged punts and WVU got the ball back with 5:58 remaining in the half. Largely via the ground game, WVU moved to near midfield but Marshall's long pass to Henry on 3rd and 4 was tipped at the last second by Terp senior cornerback Dominique Foxworth and WVU went into punt formation. Sensing the need for a big momentum shift, Rodriguez gambled, calling for the fake punt. Mountaineer punter Eric Daugherty found a wide-open Josh Bailey at the Terp 45 and the Mountaineer tight end rambled all the way to the Terrapin 4-yard line before being forced out of bounds. Two plays later, Marshall sneaked his way into the end zone from a yard out and the Mountaineers were back in the game, trailing 10-7.
"That play [the fake punt] was obviously huge," said Rodriguez. "We didn't want to give them the ball back, let them score again and dig ourselves another big hole against them. So, we pulled out our bag of tricks and Eric threw it just right."
"We've practiced that play before, but you always wonder how it will work in a real game," said special teams coordinator Bill Stewart. Daugherty. "The young man just threw a beautiful ppass there."
"All I wanted him to do was just catch the ball," added tight ends coach Herb Hand. "Any yardage he got after he caught it was secondary; we just wanted him to catch it first. When he did, there was no one around him. He probably has never been that open since high school."
Maryland's last drive before halftime netted just 11 yards and WVU took a knee after receiving the punt and went to the locker room down 10-7.
"We told our kids that we had missed a few opportunities and had capitalized on a few," said Rodriguez when asked about his halftime remarks. "We felt we had accomplished one thing by not getting down by a bunch [of points] early and facing a big deficit to overcome. Other than the fumble we had played OK – not great – but not bad, either, and we just had to keep fighting, playing hard until we got some breaks."
One such break came on the second half kick-off, as Barrett took the second half kick-off, veered right, then left on a 49-yard return from his own nine to the Terp 42. Marshall's pass to Alston picked up 13 more and, after three running plays put the ball on the five, Marshall found Henry in the back corner of the end zone on a "jump ball" pattern. The lanky Mountaineer wide-out leaped high, snaring the ball above two Terrapin defenders to haul in the touchdown pass, giving West Virginia its first lead of the night at 14-10.
The Terrapins answered that drive quickly, as special teams demon Suter answered Barrett's earlier return with a 37-yarder of his own, putting Maryland at their own 48. Stratham passes to Rich Parson and Jo Jo Walker, plus runs by Allen and Sammy Maldonado took Maryland to the WVU 18. Again, the Mountaineer prevent unit stiffened and Maryland had to settle for Novak's 35-yard field goal, trimming the Mountaineer lead to 14-13.
On the next Mountaineer possession, Marshall's long pass intended for Eddie Jackson was intercepted by Foxworth at the Terrapin 28. From there, Stratham led Maryland on their most impressive drive of the day, a time-consuming 15-play, 72-yard drive that overcame two sacks of Stratham, one each by Jason Hardee and Ernest Hunter. On the drive, back-up tailback Mario Merrills picked up 15 yards on three carries, Stratham hit slot receiver Curtis Williams for 17 and, on third and 18, a pass to the ever-dangerous Suter for 22 kept the drive alive. Allen's 3-yard scoring run with 1:32 left in the third quarter gave Maryland a 20-14 lead.
West Virginia then began the first of its three final possessions. From their own 20, in 13 plays the Mountaineers drove to the Maryland 24 where the drive stalled. Cooper came on to boot a 41-yard field goal, cutting the Terrapin lead three at 20-17. West Virginia then held Maryland at midfield and got the ball back with 8:14 remaining in the final quarter.
From the Mountaineer 16, a seemingly forever-lasting 14-play march again stalled, this time at the Maryland 18. Again, Cooper came on and kicked his second field goal of the day – this one a 35-yarder that barely missed hitting the right upright, and West Virginia tied the score at 20.
With 2:49 to play, Maryland began their final drive of the day. From their own 20, an Allen run for 12, a Stratham-to-Walker completion for 9 and a Stratham-to-Parson completion for 9 had Maryland driving toward field goal range. At that point, the Mountaineer defense provided its big play of the day.
On 3rd and one from the WVU 48, Sammy Maldonado was blasted by Mountaineer linebacker Scott Gyorko, causing Maldonado to lose control of the ball. After a mad scramble, the Mountaineers' Ben Lynch cradled the loose pigskin at the WVU 46 and the Mountaineer offense had 0:49 with which to work.
After an incomplete pass to Henry, Marshall found Bailey over the middle for 12 to the Terrapin 42. Then, following another incomplete pass, Marshall found Kay Jay Harris open in the flat with 20 seconds to go. The Mountaineer tailback, who quietly gained 88 yards on 18 carries on the night, ran out of bounds at the 35. Marshall then dropped back once again to pass and, finding no one open, made a darting run up the middle for six key yards, eluding two would-be Maryland tacklers in the process, advancing the ball to the 29 and into long but makeable field goal range for Cooper.
Following three time-outs – one by West Virginia and two by Maryland in an attempt to ice the kicker, Cooper came on to nail the 45-yard field goal with 0:02 left that gave West Virginia the hard-earned victory as pandemonium erupted at Mountaineer Field and Cooper being mobbed by his teammates at midfield.
"That's what every kicker dreams about – making that last second field goal to win a big game against a rival. That dream came true for him tonight," said Stewart of his senior placekicker. "He got a good spot [placement of the ball] by [holder] George [Shehl] and hit it well. It had a little hook on it, but it was right on target."
"You can't turn the ball over in the last part of the fourth quarter and feel to good about your chances of winning in a close game," lamented Friedgen after the game. "Sammy's a great player for us and its just a shame what happened to him there near the end. He'll bounce right back, though, and he'll give us plenty of reasons to forget about that play before the year is over with."
Friedgen further commented, "We had our chances to really take control of this game but didn't seize any of those opportunities, which is what you have to do on the road." "I give West Virginia a lot of credit for preparing well for us. They're a good team. We've owned them lately, so I guess we were due [for a loss]," said Friedgen in the interview area afterward.
"I want to say one thing about our offensive line – they did one heck of a job tonight," said Rodriguex after the game. "They gave Rasheed a lot of protection out there tonight. Not one sack. Not one. If Rick Trickett isn't the best offensive line coach in college football I'd like to meet the guy who is."
The salty Trickett wasn't quite as effusive after the game, but did give his charges some credit.
"We're playing better as a unit, but we've still got a ways to go," said Trickett after the game. "These guys will get better. They give a lot of effort but we'll need even more of it as we go along [in the season]."
With the win, West Virginia improved to 3-0 and, with Division 1-AA James Madison visiting Morgantown on the 25th, stands a good chance of being 4-0 heading into an October 2nd showdown at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia against the now-in-the-ACC Virginia Tech Hokies.
"I don't even want to hear about Virginia Tech . . . or Syracuse, or Pitt, or anyone else. We have one opponent next week – James Madison – and everyone expects us to blow them out. But, they'll be coming in here with everything to gain and nothing to lose, so we'd better be on our toes or we'll find ourselves in a position we don't want to be in," said Rodriguez of the Dukes.
Game time for next Saturday's match-up against the James Madison at Milan Puskar Stadium is at noon.
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this article are intended for entertainment purposes only. The author has created detailed statistics including each drive's time of possession, yardage, key plays, etc. for each game in order to make this fantasy series of WVU game outcomes as realistic as possible. The author assumes no responsibility for any errors or inconsistencies and has produced the series strictly for the enjoyment of Mountaineer football fans during the agonizing summer months without WVU football.