For a sizeable chunk of West Virginia's Thursday night home game against Auburn, it looked as though the game would be a blowout. As it turned out, it certainly was…just not in the way that it originally looked.
After falling behind 17-3, the Mountaineers scored 31 unanswered points over the final 40 minutes of play, sprinting past the Tigers for a 34-17 win in front of 60, 765 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
"I'm real proud of our senior class," said head coach Bill Stewart. "I'm real proud of our football team and I'm real proud of our coaching staff."
Early, it looked as though Auburn would roll. West Virginia spotted the Tigers 10 points courtesy of a pair of first-quarter interceptions by senior quarterback Patrick White, who admittedly took some time to knock the rust off after missing last weekend's game against Syracuse due to a head injury suffered against Rutgers earlier this month.
With West Virginia driving deep into Auburn territory on the game's opening possession, White looked for tailback Noel Devine coming out of the backfield. Instead, he found Auburn defensive end Josh Bynes, who snared White's short pass attempt to thwart West Virginia's early scoring threat.
The Tigers proceeded to pound the ball between the tackles with running backs Mario Fannin and Brad Lester for a 20-play, 81-yard drive that moved all the way to the West Virginia one yardline before the Mountaineer defense tightened up.
A big third-down stop by reserve linebacker Pat Lazear, playing in a goalline defense package, kept the Tigers out of the end zone, forcing AU to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Wes Byrum.
The Tigers were able to capitalize again just minutes later, when White was picked off by Walter McFadden near midfield. Auburn scored five plays later when Lester took a screen pass from quarterback Kodi Burns and rumbled in untouched from 16 yards away.
Besides offensive inconsistency – which was again rearing its ugly head early against the Tigers – another bugaboo has plagued WVU in the season's first half: shoddy kickoff coverage. The special teams miscues continued on Thursday. After Pat McAfee's 23-yard field goal got WVU within a score, the Tigers took the ensuing kickoff 70 yards, setting up a nine-yard rush by Burns to move Auburn's lead to 17-3.
AU head coach Tommy Tuberville went for the kill, calling for a perfectly-executed onside kick that gave the Tigers the ball at midfield.
With their backs against the wall, the Mountaineers began to fight back. Facing its most adverse situation since a blowout loss at East Carolina in early September, the Moutnaineer defense didn't panic.
"They had us down a little bit, but we kept clawing and we kept fighting," said senior linebacker Mortty Ivy. "We knew that there were still three quarters of football left to play, and we knew that we were going to have to make some plays. As long as we did that, we would be successful."
The Mountaineers forced the Tigers into a three and out, and woke up offensively with White's 44-yard touchdown strike to Alric Arnett. White's touchdown pass brought the Mountaineers back within a touchdown heading into the locker room.
"To be honest with you, at halftime the energy in the locker room was very upbeat. You would have felt like we were winning," said senior wide receiver Dorrell Jalloh. "We just said that we had to go out there and be patient, make plays and that there was a lot left to do."
West Virginia kept it going in the second half, thanks in no small part to Jalloh. After the defense again held the Tigers to a three and out, West Virginia chipped away at the Auburn lead with another McAfee field goal.
The defense continued to stymie Auburn's attack, and the offense continued to take advantage of their opportunities via both the ground and the air. After another three-and-out, West Virginia marched off an 11-play, 93-yard drive that resulted in Jalloh's go-ahead touchdown reception.
From that point on, it was all West Virginia. Jalloh added a second touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. With the Mountaineers facing a third-down and three from the Auburn 32, White found Jalloh on a crossing route for sufficient yardage to move the chains. That wasn't enough for the gritty senior, who broke an Auburn tackle attempt and hurdled another would-be tackler before running to daylight. As he crossed into the end zone, Jalloh leaped over the goalline in celebration.
"That was just a great effort by a guy who didn't want to be denied," Stewart said. "He wanted that end zone."
Lost amongst White's three touchdown passes was another big-time game from the smallest guy on the field. Sophomore tailback Noel Devine ran for 207 yards on just 17 carries, tacking on a 30-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to salt away West Virginia's fourth straight win. Devine has now run for at least 100 yards in four of his last five games. It was his seventh career 100-yard game.
All this coming against an Auburn defense which came into the game giving up just 107 yards on the ground each time out. All of this coming after a 17-3 hole against that same defense.
"I saw confidence oozing out of everyone tonight," said Stewart. "The boys were under pressure. Our guys strained and they wore the Old Gold and Blue proudly.
"I'm very proud of this football team."