As expected, it was a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out affair between two of the Big East's finest teams. Entering the game, Cincinnati (8-3, 3-3) was in sole possession of second place by virtue of Pittsburgh's loss at Rutgers, while West Virginia shared the top spot with Connecticut, victorious over Syracuse. A win over the fifth-ranked Mountaineers (9-1, 4-1), though, would have given Cincinnati a share of the title with – ironically -- a Mountaineer win over UConn next week. At the end of the night, West Virginia just made too many plays for the Bearcats to come out on top.
"It was about all we expected," said first-year UC head coach Brian Kelly. "It was two good teams for the Big East Championship. We competed, played as hard as we could play, but West Virginia made a couple of plays. They are a very talented football team, well-coached."
Coming into the game, one of the keys to potential victory for the Mountaineers was to avoid costly turnovers. In the season's lone loss at South Florida back in late September, Rich Rodriguez's squad gave the Bulls six – count them six – turnovers en route to what at the time looked to be a loss that would crush dreams of playing for the national championship, as well as winning a fourth Big East title. Facing a similar scenario on Saturday against Cincinnati, the Mountaineers again gave the ball away too many times for comfort, but this time were able to overcome the miscues for the road victory over a Top 25 team.
Of course the X-factor – as it so often seems to be – was quarterback Pat White. Against USF, White limped off the field in the second quarter with a bruised thigh. Against the Bearcats, White and running mate Steve Slaton again willed their team to victory in a hostile environment, and in the process put West Virginia in a grand position entering the season's final two regular season games.
White rushed for 155 yards and two scores, and added 140 yards through the air to bolster his Heisman Trophy hopes, particularly in light of a season ending injury to Oregon's Dennis Dixon, recently considered the front runner. Slaton added 103 yards rushing and a fourth quarter touchdown. More importantly, the junior from Levittown, Pa. held on to the ball and churned out positive yardage as the Mountaineers ran out the final minute and a half to preserve the win.
As clutch and Slaton and White were, this story could just as easily have been centered around Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk and wide receiver Marcus Barnett. Mauk finished 19-34 for 323 yards through the air, with much of his final total coming from a rhythmic connection with Barnett. The duo found each other 10 times for 210 yards and both of the Bearcats' passing touchdowns. The first came on a 70-yard bomb reminiscent of West Virginia's 2006 season. Barnett cut across the face of the Mountaineer secondary, but was never picked up by a white-clad defender, thus finding himself wide open along the Cincy sideline. Mauk, a senior transfer from Wake Forest, threw a perfect strike to the freshman, who did the rest by merely trotting to paydirt. Barnett's second touchdown came in the fourth quarter, pulling the Bearcats within 11 points of West Virginia's seemingly-insurmountable second half advantage.
As impressive as Mauk's final numbers were, the senior was kept on the run for much of the night by a blitzing West Virginia defense. The Mountaineers finished with nine tackles for a loss, and five sacks on the evening.
"We put a little package in for me to spy, which allowed me to rush the quarterback a little bit," said senior linebacker Marc Magro, who led West Virginia with eight tackles and two sacks. "We made some adjustments at halftime that was going to drop eight, but have one guy spy the quarterback."
The Mountaineers built their 28-10 second half lead in a workmanlike way, trading in big plays in exchange for moving the chains and chewing up both yardage and clock. West Virginia's first drive of the night marched 70 yards in nine plays, chewing up more than three minutes of clock and culminating with Owen Schmitt's four-yard run around the left side of the line. That first possession would set the tone for the rest of the Blue and Gold's scoring on the night. On West Virginia's final three scoring drives of the night, it averaged 10 plays and 73 yards before finding the end zone.
In reality, the margin of victory could have been much larger for the Mountaineers. A Cincinnati fumble set White and company up in the red zone, but the junior threw an errant pass over the head of intended receiver Darius Reynaud, and into the waiting arms of Bearcat DB Mike Mickens. In the fourth quarter, a pair of fumbles – one on a quarterback to center exchange, and one on a White run in the open field – gave the home team new life, though many of the Bearcat fans had left following West Virginia's fourth touchdown. The second fumble set up Bradley Glatthaar's one-yard plunge into the end zone, though Mauk's two-point conversion pass fell incomplete. When WVU's Boogie Allen cradled Cincy's onside kick attempt, the final result was all but over.
In all, the Mountaineers ran 80 plays – 16 more than the Bearcats – and owned a hefty 13:22 advantage in time of possession. All of this, of course, was predicated on West Virginia's running game. Though not as explosive as Mountaineer fans are used to seeing, the ground attack was every bit as productive, churning out exactly 300 yards before losing yardage on three quarterback kneels to salt away the victory.
The West Virginia win sets up a showdown next Saturday in Morgantown which – for all intents and purposes – will be for the Big East Championship. Connecticut improved to 5-1 in league play with a 30-7 win over hapless Syracuse in Hartford Saturday afternoon.
"I leave this game knowing, as I said all season, that this league goes through West Virginia," said Kelly, who defeated UConn last week here in the Queen City to set up Saturday's showdown.
For three hours and change on Saturday night, Kelly's Bearcats battled the Mountaineers toe for toe, hoping to tear down the wall to the title that Rodriguez and company have built in league play. At the end of the day, West Virginia held firm, thus keeping its destiny firmly entrenched in Morgantown, while also holding out hope of bigger and better things at season's end.