For two straight seasons, South Florida had gotten the better of West Virginia. On Saturday night in Morgantown in the home finale for 19 seniors, the Mountaineers served up an ice-cold dish of revenge.
With Mountaineer Field dressed in white and Mother Nature providing even more, West Virginia held on in a defensive struggle, defeating the Bulls by a final of 13-7.
"I'm very proud of this football team," said first-year head coach Bill Stewart after the win. "It's been a tough week because I didn't like losing (in last week's Backyard Brawl at Pitt). We came back and we got after it and won this football game. It was a beautiful night, beautiful weather and a great crowd."
West Virginia's defense rose to the occasion when it mattered most, coming up with a pair of red zone takeaways and making a clutch play on USF's final offensive attempt of the night to preserve victory. On fourth-and-12 from the WVU 16, senior cornerback Ellis Lankster batted away Matt Grothe's pass intended for receiver Taurus Johnson in the end zone.
With swirling winds, consistent snowfall and freezing temperatures all contributing to a picture-perfect winter night in Morgantown, neither school's offense was able to warm up the proceedings. Instead, the Mountaineers had to rely on defense and the kicking game to come away with their eighth win of the season.
Although the Bulls were able to run for a respectable 182 yards on 38 carries, the red zone giveaways ultimately cost them a third consecutive win over the Mountaineers.
"We ran the ball really well," said USF head coach Jim Leavitt. "The two turnovers, obviously, killed us. You just can't have those turnovers."
West Virginia took the game's opening kickoff and moved down the field with relative ease. The Mountaineers moved 58 yards in 11 plays, with the 4:55 drive culminating with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Patrick White to Tyler Urban.
The Bulls marched right back, covering 64 yards in 13 plays over 6:35. Tailback Mike Ford had several nice runs on the drive, but was stripped at the WVU five by safety Sidney Glover, who recovered the lose pigskin to keep USF out of the end zone.
Later in the game, it was Glover again providing the big play, this time with an interception of Grothe in the end zone. Glover's interception, the first of his career, gave the Mountaineers just enough time to move downfield and into field goal range before the half expired.
With the score knotted at seven, senior kicker Pat McAfee connected from 45 yards away to give the Mountaineers a 10-7 lead heading into the locker room. It was a lead WVU would not relinquish.
Aside from the turnovers, USF also shot itself in the foot in other ways. Twice on fourth down, the Bulls were called for roughing the punter. The first call was originally ruled as a deflected punt, but after a review from the booth, it was determined that no USF player made contact with the ball before plowing through McAfee. The second penalty was initially ruled as such, and later confirmed upon review after it was clear that the ball was not touched before McAfee was roughed.
"I'm disappointed with roughing the punter twice," said Leavitt, the only head coach in the brief history of South Florida football. "I thought we had opportunities to block the punt. We just can't have that happen. We didn't get the good side on either one of them."
McAfee added a 42-yard field goal on West Virginia's first drive of the third quarter to give the game its final scoring margin.
After not starting or playing in the first quarter, tailback Noel Devine came on in relief to churn out 90 yards on 17 carries. Stewart stressed afterward that neither Devine nor starting free safety Robert Sands – who also missed the first quarter – were in any sort of disciplinary trouble. Stewart stressed that he had opened up both positions to competition earlier in the week after last week's loss at Pitt.
Quarterback Patrick White, playing in his final game at Milan Puskar Stadium, finished with 40 yards rushing and 141 yards passing, including the 12-yard score to Urban. After the game clock had expired, White circled the field shaking hands and slapping five with a number of Mountaineer fans who were on their feet cheering for the greatest player in school history.
"I just wanted to thank the fans," White said of his victory lap, which was eventually aided by WVU Assistant Athletic Director for Football Operations Mike Kerin driving No. 5 off the field in a golf cart. "They've been there with me every step of the way. I just wanted to express my gratitude."
At one point on his ride off the field, White hopped off the cart to hug his parents.
"I'm just happy that they love me and that they're supportive," he said. "That's hard on a family, driving 15 hours (from Daphne, Ala.) every week."
Immediately after the game, Meineke Car Care Bowl executive director Will Webb extended an invitation to the Mountaineers on behalf of his organization. WVU Director of Athletics Ed Pastilong, interim President Peter McGrath and Stewart were on hand to accept the invitation from Webb.
Though it's not the New Year's Day bowl game that West Virginia fans have become accustomed to in recent years, it is indeed better than no bowl at all.
"I'm not pleased at 8-4 (West Virginia's final regular season record for 2008); I'm a lot tougher than that," Stewart said. "Tonight, we had to reach down deep and have a gut check for this game."
The Mountaineers did so, and in the process, broke a frustrating losing streak to the Bulls.
"They made plays at the end," Leavitt said. "West Virginia is a very good football team. We had our chances, we just couldn't get it at the end."