Sooner or later, there was going to come a time when West Virginia had to show up early and show up often if it wanted to come away with a signature, statement victory in 2008. Too often this season, the Mountaineers had sleepwalked through the early part of games against a number of foes. Early in the season, it caught up with them at East Carolina.
On Saturday night in Morgantown, it looked as though the slow starts and early deficits had caught up with West Virginia again. A frantic fourth-quarter rally, however, was nearly enough to put the Mountaineers over the top for the fourth time in Big East play.
Trailing 20-7 late in the fourth quarter, WVU may have gotten some help in its comeback efforts. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly instructed punter Kevin Huber – arguably the nation's best at his position – to take a safety with 1:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.
West Virginia's offense then marched off its most successful drive of the night, with quarterback Pat White finding Jock Sanders for a gain of 15 followed by a 23-yard completion to Dorrell Jalloh. Tacked on to the end of Jalloh's catch was a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Cincinnati's Connor Barwin. Four plays later, White found Jalloh again, this time in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown. A run to the right by White gave West Virginia a precious two-point conversion and left a glimmer of hope for a miracle Mountaineer comeback.
The glimmer grew even more when Mortty Ivy recovered Pat McAfee's onside kick moments later.
"I've never hit an onside kick better than that, actually," McAfee said afterward. "(Pat) Lazear and J.T. (Thomas) did a great job of taking the (Cincinnati hands team) out and Mortty hopped on the ball. Everything worked out perfect."
A 21-yard pass to Jalloh put the Mountaineers within McAfee's range, and the senior nailed a 52-yard field goal as time expired.
"I told (Jalloh) thanks for getting me those yards," McAfee explained. "I felt I owed our team something a little bit for the Colorado stuff, and I was just happy to be a part of it."
McAfee missed an overtime kick at Colorado that opened the door for the Buffs' victory back in September. On Saturday, not only did he hit the 52-yarder, he also gave the Mountaineers their lone lead of the game with his 27-yard boot in overtime.
To Cincinnati's credit, they responded. Quarterback Tony Pike found Kazeem Alli for a game-winning two-yard touchdown pass to give the Bearcats their biggest victory since joining the Big East in 2005.
"Keeping them out of the end zone (in overtime) really gave the offense a lift, to be quite honest," Kelly said afterward. "Our defense played well all day, up until we got into that darn prevent stuff, which we all know, prevents you from winning."
In reality, West Virginia might have prevented itself from winning with another lackluster effort that lasted not only for the first half, but for much of regulation's four quarters.
The Mountaineers began digging their weekly hole from the game's first play as Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard fielded the opening kickoff two yards deep in his own end zone and ran it out, breaking a couple of early tackles before eventually galloping away for a 100-yard touchdown. It was the first time an opposing player had taken a kickoff back 100 yards since Pitt's Ricky Turner did it in 1990. Gilyard's return was the longest return by an opponent in Mountaineer Field history.
More than that, it again exposed a glaring weakness in West Virginia's kickoff coverage, something that has haunted the Mountaineers throughout the roller coaster season of 2008.
West Virginia's offense wasn't much better than its kickoff coverage. Cincinnati's defense took control of the game early, forcing a three-and-out on each of West Virginia's first two possessions. In all, the Mountaineers would convert just four of 20 third-down-conversion opportunities on the night.
West Virginia's running game, ranked tenth in the nation entering Saturday, was nonexistent for much of the night. The Bearcats out-hit and out-hustled the Mountaineers at the point of attack. For the second straight game, tailback Noel Devine was held well under 100 yards, netting just 58 on 19 carries for an average of 3.1 yards per carry. Devine did lead West Virginia with six catches for 48 yards.
Quarterback Pat White, one week removed from one of his best running games of the season, couldn't get free either. White was held to 41 yards on 20 carries, but did convert the critical two-point conversion with his legs in the fourth quarter. The Bearcats were relentless in their pursuit of the football, and when they got to it, tackled West Virginia better than any team had all season.
"Outstanding defensive play," said Kelly, Cincinnati's second-year head coach. "We played very well defensively today. We needed to play that well. Team defense, but at the end of the day you're going to have to make individual tackles on one or two of those guys. We came up with them all night."
Through the air, White finished 20-30 for 219 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have a hurt football team in there because we lost and that is never fun," said WVU head coach Bill Stewart. "We got it back to 0-0 and that's all I could ask of them. There were some things I was not pleased with and some things that I'm very pleased with. My hat is off to Coach Kelly and his football team. They beat us at home."
The Mountaineers are off next week and will return to action against Louisville on November 22. By the end of that day, West Virginia could conceivably be back in contention for the Big East championship. For now, though, the road to that prize goes through Cincinnati.