Rutgers, which pounded Pittsburgh 37-17 the week before, won the toss and elected to kick to the Mountaineers. After a 42-yard return by Antonio Lewis, the Mountaineers failed to pick up a first down and punted. Scott Kozlowski's punt rolled out of bounds inside the Rutgers one-yard line to put the Knights in a hole. A quarterback sneak by the Scarlet Knights' Ryan Hart gained a yard, but on second down Hart tripped while coming out from under the center and WVU's Ernest Hunter dove on top of him in the end zone for the safety and a 2-0 WVU lead. Rutgers placekicker Mike Cortese booted the free kick with Lewis again receiving, and the sophomore cornerback returned the ball from the WVU 27 to the Rutgers 48.
On first down, WVU quarterback Adam Bednarik hit Rayshawn Bolden on a 37-yard catch-and-run down the Rutgers sideline to the RU 11. Two carries by Gwaltney sandwiched around an incomplete pass in the end zone to Darius Reynaud put the ball on the Rutgers four, which left the Mountaineers short of a first down. West Virginia's Pat McAfee came on to convert a 21-yard field goal and WVU led by the unusual score of 5-0 with 10:21 still showing on the first quarter clock.
WVU had dominated play to that point, but Rutgers then put together a ten-play, 76-yard touchdown march to take the lead. Hart completed several short and intermediate range throws during the drive to four different receivers, and bruising fullback Brian Leonard, a pre-season Big East first team selection, broke loose for a 23-yard romp around the left side of the RU line and down the WVU sideline. A critical defensive holding call on West Virginia on a third and eight play kept the Knights' drive alive. From the WVU seven-yard line, Hart hit All-American candidate Tres Moses for the touchdown with 5:02 remaining. The extra point gave RU a 7-5 lead.
The teams traded possessions before West Virginia put together its first long drive of the day. From its 29-yard line, the Mountaineers relied on their powerful running attack, as Gwaltney carried for 11, 7, 12, 8 and 5 yards during the march. A sack of Bednarik by Cameron Stephenson moved the ball back to the 40 and temporarily slowed the drive, but Bednarik hooked up with Joe Hunter for 18 yards and then hit Jason Colson out of the slot for 12 more yards, advancing the ball to the RU 10. Three plays later Pernell Williams went over the goal line from four yards out, giving WVU the lead at 11-7 with 9:43 left in the first half. West Virginia elected to attempt a two-point conversion but a pitchout to Gwaltney was well defended by the Knights who buried the sensational freshman far behind the line of scrimmage.
After a kick-off that was fumbled but recovered, Rutgers put together another scoring drive. Starting at their own 31, the Scarlet Knights moved into Mountaineer territory mainly as a result of Mountaineer penalties – two offside infractions and another defensive holding call. From the WVU 48 Hart hit bulky senior tight end Clark Harris for a gain of 13. Two plays later senior tailback Clarence Pittman broke two tackles and picked up 16 yards to the WVU 17. On second down an apparent touchdown pass from Hart to Shawn Tucker was ruled out of bounds after officials used the Big East conference's new instant replay system to review the play. The Knights settled for Cortese's 34-yard field goal and Rutgers drew to within a point at 11-10 with 5:08 left before intermission.
The teams then traded possessions with neither squad getting into enemy territory and the half ended with WVU clinging to a one-point lead.
Rutgers took the second half kick-off and quickly re-took the lead, as Hart led the Knights on another impressive drive. Starting from the 24-yard line, Hart completed passes to Moses, Harris and Pittman, while Pittman and Leonard picked up several chucks of yardage on the ground. The effective mix of run and pass was culminated as Leonard bulled over from the 2-yard line to seesaw the home team back into the lead at 17-11.
After an exchange of possessions West Virginia struck paydirt quickly. From the WVU 28, Colson took a pitchout from Bednarik and went to his left, eluding the outstretched arms of RU linebacker Maurice Hines, then cut back across the field and down the WVU sideline. Staying just beyond the trailing Knights' defensive back Jarvis Johnson, Colson crossed the goal line to complete the 72-yard touchdown run, bringing the game to a tie at 17-17. The successful extra point gave WVU another one-point lead, 18-17, with 4:26 remaining in the third quarter.
Rutgers answered WVU's touchdown with another sustained march. The Knights stayed mostly on the ground with the powerful Leonard hammering away at the WVU defense again and again. Hart mixed in completions to Harris and senior wideout Chris Baker, as the Knights moved to the WVU 14-yard line. The Mountaineer defense then rose up to force a 31-yard Cortese field goal, his second of the game, and Rutgers re-took the lead again at 20-18 with 12:39 remaining in the game.
West Virginia received the kick-off and drove into RU territory but was forced to punt. RU took over and moved from their seven to the WVU 22, with Leonard again logging several carries for gains and Hart mixing in passes to Moses and Tucker. Again the WVU defense bent but didn't break and Cortese came on to boot a 39-yard field goal with 7:10 remaining to extend the Rutgers lead to 23-18.
West Virginia's chances of retaking the lead appeared grim on the next series, as a Bednarik pass intended for Joe Hunter was intercepted by RU's Jason Nugent at the WVU 42. However, the WVU defense again rose to the challenge and held the Knights on three downs, forcing RU to punt after an incompletion with 5:38 left in the contest.
That set the stage for the biggest WVU special teams play of the season to date. Standing at his own 46, Rutgers punter Joe Radigan's punt was blocked by West Virginia's Chad Mayse and recovered by the Mountaineers' Marc Magro at the RU 39.
With 5:25 remaining, Gwaltney carried the ball on first down for three yards. One second down, Bednarik was sacked by RU's Joe Henley, bringing the ball back to the 47. One third and 18, Bednarik hit Vaughn Rivers for 19 yards and a first down at the 28. Three subsequent Gwaltney carries moved the ball to the 16 and gained another first down. Bednarik then hit Mountaineer tight end Josh Bailey for a pick-up of eight, and on second down, Gwaltney was stopped for no gain. On third down, Colson picked up one yard, brining up fourth and one. Bednarik handed off to WVU fullback Owen Schmitt and the play picked up just enough yardage to give West Virginia four more downs. The Mountaineers would need every one of them.
On first down from the six, Colson gained two. A Bednarik pass into the corner of the end zone for Bolden on second down was overthrown, and after a Gwaltney sweep on third down put the ball on the one, WVU was again in a do-or-die situation. Facing fourth down, Bednarik handed off to Schmitt and the Mountaineer fullback bulled his way into the end zone after meeting resistance at the line of scrimmage. The power run allowed WVU to seize the lead again at 24-23. The two-point conversion attempt – a run by Colson – was stopped short and WVU kicked off to the Knights with 1:12 left.
The kickoff was returned to the RU 33 and Hart immediately went to work. On first down, the steady senior quarterback hit Moses for a gain of eight, and on second down, Hart hit Baker for a gain of nine to midfield. Two incompletions followed, one a result of a near interception by WVU cornerback Dee McCann. On third and 10, Hart calmly hit Tucker for a gain of 13 to the Mountaineers' 37 with 0:39 left.
Armed with a fresh set of downs, a burst up the middle by Leonard picked up seven, bringing up second and three. Hart went back to pass and was sacked by blitzing linebacker Bobby Hathaway, putting the ball back to the WVU 41. On third down, Hart tried to hit a streaking Moses down the RU sideline but the ball was tipped away by leaping safety Jahmile Addae inside the 10-yard line.
Facing fourth down and 14 from the 41, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano called for a pass over the middle to Harris. The pass was completed, but a trio of Mountaineers, led by Addae and cornerback Anthony Mims, met Harris head-on near the first down marker. The measurement came up about an inch short and West Virginia had stopped the last minute Rutgers rally to preserve the narrow 24-23 win.
A drained Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez praised his defense and special teams after the game. "We got enough key stops in the second half to keep them from scoring and that was the difference in the game, along with the blocked punt. I was delighted to see our special teams come through with a big play. We needed something big to happen and it did.
"I think some of our fans think that Rutgers is an automatic win every year, like its some sort of birthright or something. That's not true," Rodriguez continued. "Every year Greg has those guys playing better and better and better. Rutgers is going to win plenty of football games in the future – this year – that's for sure. I guarantee you our coaching staff is relieved to get out of here with a win and we're glad we don't have to face them again."
Like many opposing coaches, Rodriguez was impressed with the play of Rutgers' star fullback. "Leonard is a moose on the loose. We didn't have any answers for him this year and we didn't have any answers for his last year, either. I've had nightmares about trying to stop that guy. Thank heavens he's a senior, right? Please tell me that kid is graduating, because I don't want to try to game plan him again. And Moses is the real deal, too. Those two guys will get paychecks on Sunday this time next year."
A dejected Greg Schiano, who saw his Knights again finish oh so close to West Virginia, gave praise to the victors while lamenting another near-miss against WVU. "We're getting closer and closer, but that's not good enough. We have to learn how to finish close games like this and not fall just short. When we can close the deal on teams like West Virginia that's when we'll know we've finally arrived as a good football team. We're not there yet, but give West Virginia the credit for making a big play when they needed it. One day we'll make those big plays and we'll get to enjoy the feeling WVU has right now."
West Virginia (4-2, 1-1) faces the sixth-ranked Louisville Cardinals at Mountaineer Field next Saturday in a Big East showdown on ESPN2 while Rutgers (4-1, 1-1) travels to the Carrier Dome to face the Syracuse Orange.
PASSING – WVA – Bednarik 14-24-181-0-1 RU – Hart 22-33-245-1-0
RUSHING – WVA – Colson 16-122-1 Williams 7-31-1 Gwaltney 14-89 Phillips 3-13 Schmitt 3-5-1 Bednarik 2-(19) RU – Leonard 19-142-1 Pittman 14-72 Facyson 3-7 Cunningham 2-6 TOTALS 38-227-1
RECEIVING – WVA – Bolden 3-60 Myles 2-20 Rivers 2-28 Hunter 1-18 Reynaud 2-19 Thompson 1-11 Colson 2-17 Bailey 1-8 RU – Moses 7-76-1 Tucker 3-39 Harris 4-44 Pittman 2-16 Baker 2-29 Barnes 3-32 Loomis 1-9
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this article are intended for entertainment purposes only. No criticism, direct or implied, is intended. 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.