A raucous crowd. A darkened nighttime sky. A big, Big East home game in primetime on national television.
This was the setting which greeted West Virginia on Saturday night when head coach Brian Kelly and the Cincinnati Bearcats rolled into Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. The mostly-gold clad crowd was boisterous and ready to go, with two big wins over Auburn and Connecticut ushering the Mountaineers into yet another big game on Saturday night.
And in one play, a mere 16 seconds of game time, Milan Puskar Stadium fell silent. Well, except for the one corner of the south endzone seats dressed heavily in Bearcat black and red. The brave Cincinnati fans who made the trek were suddenly just as energetic as their Mountaineer brethren had been just moments earlier.
Pat McAfee, who would later tie the game at the end of regulation with a clutch 52-yard field goal as time expired, had convinced head coach/special teams coordinator Bill Stewart to let him kick the ball as hard and as far as he could. Stewart had wanted a sky kick to allow the kickoff team to run under the ball and cover the kick without letting Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard get a head of steam.
Gilyard fielded the kick a few yards deep in his own end zone. He broke one tackle, then a second. In all, four Mountaineers got their hands on Gilyard. None were able to bring him down. Cincinnati's big-play receiver would gallop the rest of the way untouched, and in the process became the first opponent to ever run a kickoff back for 100 yards in the 28-year history of Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Bearcat defense would stymie WVU on the ensuing drive, and for much of the night thereafter.
While West Virginia would rally back in the final minute to tie the game at 20, Cincinnati's big-play beginning was really the moment the tide turned. And in the process, so did the Big East title chase, which now goes through The Queen City, not Morgantown.