While it wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing of efforts at times, the end result is all that matters. West Virginia (3-2, 1-0) opened its Big East season with a 24-17 win over struggling Rutgers (1-4, 0-1).
West Virginia's defense made a crucial stand late in the fourth quarter to thwart any hopes of Rutgers's first win over the Mountaineers since the 1994 season.
With roughly five minutes to play and the Mountaineers leading 24-17, head coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen did all they could to run out the game clock. The Mountaineers moved the chains twice on the drive before facing a critical fourth-and-inches with exactly two minutes remaining. Quarterback Jarrett Brown, who had been effective in short-yardage situations earlier in the game, lined up in the shotgun, a curious formation choice to be sure, and was swarmed by the Rutgers defense from the snap. The result of the play was a nine-yard loss, giving Rutgers the ball in West Virginia territory with two minutes to play for a potential game-tying (or game-winning with a two-point conversion) score.
Afterward, Stewart defended the decision to spread the field on fourth down, rather than lining the 6-4, 220-pound Brown up under center in hopes of getting the short conversion.
"It got stuffed at Colorado," Stewart said of lining up under center. "I didn't like that play."
Rutgers, though, loved the call, as the Scarlet Knights were just 45 yards away from tying or winning a game in which they looked to have no business competing in on multiple occasions during the game.
West Virginia's defense, playing without senior middle linebacker Reed Williams, rose to the occasion, giving up just five yards in the four ensuing plays. Victory was preserved when, on fourth-and-five from the WVU 40, defensive lineman Scooter Berry batted away quarterback Mike Teel's pass intended for Tiquan Underwood.
"That was a tremendous win for the Mountaineers," said Stewart. "It was a heck of a football game."
Earlier, it didn't look as though it would be much of a game at all. After coming up with nothing on its first two possessions, a 34-yard punt return by senior Ellis Lankster set up West Virginia's first score of the game. Lankster's return was aided by a bone-crushing block by reserve linebacker Ovid Goulbourne.
After a first-down rush by Brown chewed up eight yards, White went to the air off of play-action and found freshman tight end Tyler Urban running alone behind the RU secondary for an easy 25-yard score.
"It was a new play that we just put in this week. It was just a corner route where Noel goes into the flat. It is a simple play," said Urban. "They forgot about me, the tight end, and went with Noel. I was just wide open."
West Virginia's lead grew to 17-3 late in the first half when slot receiver Jock Sanders took a short pass from White and eluded tacklers for 14 yards on his way into the end zone.
After that play, though, Stewart called a squib kick, which ended up being fielded by the Scarlet Knights at their own 30 and returned 14 yards. Rutgers began their drive with just 51 seconds remaining in the half, but didn't even need that much time to answer the Sanders touchdown with a five-yard run by quarterback Mike Teel. RU's five-play, 56-yard drive took just 30 seconds, and more importantly, snatched momentum away from the Mountaineers.
Though the squib kick clearly aided the efforts of RU to march down the field in such a short amount of time, Stewart – who also serves as West Virginia's special teams coordinator – said he would do the same thing again if put in a similar situation.
"The kick before the half, I will always squib the ball or sky the ball," he said. "I will never kick it deep with a minute to go and let them take it back. That's why I did what I did."
Stewart redeemed himself in the third quarter. After Brown was thrown for a one-yard loss on third and short from the Rutgers 44, Stewart spent a few extra seconds with the punt team before sending the unit out onto the field in hopes of pinning the Scarlet Knights deep in their own territory.
The Mountaineers rolled the dice with a fake punt, snapping the ball to Weirton's Zac Cooper, who rumbled 18 yards to not only pick up the first down, but regain momentum for a Mountaineer offense that sorely needed it.
"Sometimes you get a feel," Stewart explained. "I can't tell you why, and I can't tell you if I'll ever get it again, but I got it and I lived with it. It's not about guts. It's not about taking a chance. If I want to take a chance, I'll buy a lottery ticket. That's a chance. (The fake punt) is a calculated risk that we practice all the time."
"All I was thinking was get the first down," added Cooper, who racked up some impressive prep statistics as a running back at Weir High.
Cooper's run gave West Virginia new life, and the end result of the drive was a one-yard touchdown plunge by Brown.
The Scarlet Knights got back within a score in the fourth quarter on Mike Teel's 14-yard touchdown pass to Tim Brown, but were unable to get any closer thanks to the clutch execution by West Virginia's defense on the final drive.
For Rutgers, wide receiver Kenny Britt finished with 12 catches for 151 yards. Teel was 14-32 overall for 178 yards and the touchdown.
"We started off a little bit slow, but you know, week in and week out we keep getting better and better I think," said WVU receiver Jock Sanders. "We're starting to gel more as a team and the defense is really stepping it up. It's all coming in and we are all bonding."
White's status for next weekend's homecoming game against Syracuse was not immediately known. The senior finished 12-17 for 137 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air.
White moved into second place all-time on the NCAA list for quarterback rushing yards, passing former Indiana great Antwan Randle-El. He trails only former Missouri Tiger Brad Smith.
McAfee's extra point following Urban's touchdown moved him into first place all-time at WVU for kick scoring.
With the win, West Virginia improves to 30-4-2 all-time against Rutgers.