O.K., perhaps I had been out in the sun too long. But there were certainly plenty of danger signals in West Virginia's win over the Pirates. Three interceptions. A lost fumble. Two missed field goals. More missed tackles than in the first three games combined. A missed extra point. Two point eight yards per rush. The mistakes were numerous, as head coach Rich Rodriguez readily admitted.
"It was a very uninspiring win to say the least," said Rodriguez, who again showed off the calmer demeanor he has displayed during 2005. "We did not play well and that is an understatement. As much as we preach to them about staying focused, it just wasn't there. But kids will be kids."
While not every Mountaineer player agreed that the intensity was lacking ("I was intense," said linebacker Boo McLee), there was certainly a lack of execution, both offensively and defensively, that led to the Pirates making a game of it in the fourth quarter.
Early on, it looked as if WVU would run away and hide. Marc Magro crushed quarterback James Pinkney on ECU's opening drive, forcing a fumble that fellow linebacker Jeff Noechel recovered on the Pirate 44. Five consecutive runs put the Mountaineers on the Pirate 15, and from there Adam Bednarik found wide receiver Darius Reynaud on a cross in the end zone for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
If that sequence seemed almost too easy, it's probably because it was. The Pirates responded later in the quarter by forcing a Bednarik fumble on the WVU five, but the stout Mountaineer defense made a stop that limited the damage to a field goal. And while the Mountaineers sputtered on offense, West Virginia still managed to build the lead to 14-3, thanks to an almost unchallenged second quarter 76-yard punt return for a touchdown, courtesy of Antonio Lewis.
"I think the punter might have touched my leg just a little," said Lewis, who took the kick on the run and flew through a wide return lane carved by the Mountaineer return squad. When WVU held East Carolina on the ensuing series, then manufactured its finest drive of the day (11 plays, 80 yards, Brandon Myles ten yard TD reception), few could guess it would be the home team's final score of the day.
That there was a let down on the Mountaineer sideline was without question. Leading 20-3, with the defense again making big plays when necessary, this game seemed in control. It was from that point, however, that the Pirates began dominating play.
From that point through the end of the third quarter, the Pirates kept the ball for 15:56, as opposed to just 5:39 for WVU. Only inspired efforts by the Mountaineer defense, which tired badly in the afternoon heat, kept the Pirates out of the end zone. However, a pair of field goals from Robert Lee drew within 11 points at 20-9, and when WVU either turned the ball over or missed scoring chances, the game came down to the final few minutes.
East Carolina finally narrowed the scoring margin to five when they completed a 48-yard drive with five minutes to play on an 11-yard scoring toss from Pinkney to Aundrae Allison, but couldn't cut the margin to a field goal when Pinkney's two-point conversion pass sailed out of the end zone.
WVU, which gained just 127 yards rushing on the afternoon despite again shuffling its offensive line, could only gain six yards on the ensuing series. However, punter Phil Brady bailed out the home team with a 52-yard rolling punt that was downed on the ECU four, pinning the Pirates deep. Faced with such poor field position, the Pirates never had a chance, and could only gain six yards of their own before punting the ball back to West Virginia.
The Mountaineers tried to make it exciting by failing to convert on a fourth down and one play on the East Carolina 37 with 20 to play, but Pinkney was sacked on ECU's final play from their own 49, sealing the victory and causing audible exhales of relief along the Mountaineer sideline.
"It's a win," Rodriguez said. "That's the first thing I told them, it's a lesson learned, and we're still 4-0 with a very young team. I don't think many people expected us to be 4-0 right now. I'm not going to destroy their confidence with this, because they know they didn't play well. I'd be concerned if I went in the locker room and saw everyone jumping around like they won the Super Bowl, but that's not how it is. They are a conscientious bunch. They'll point out their mistakes on film before our coaching staff does."
West Virginia had just 307 yards of total offense, and committed four turnovers to the Pirates' two. Adam Bednarik again missed a substantial portion of the game, this time after suffering a bruised knee when he was dropped on his own five-yard line in the second quarter. WVU forced five ECU fumbles, but was only able to come up with one recovery.
West Virginia next hosts top-five ranked Virginia Tech in an ACC-Big East grudge match. The game, with a noon kickoff, will be televised nationally.