Liberty Hangs Tough, But Mountaineers Prevail

WVU's opposition billed Saturday's season-opening contest as a classic case of David versus Goliath. While the underdogs didn't pull a similarly stunning upset, Liberty's Davids did make WVU's Goliaths work a bit harder than many anticipated before the home team came away with a 33-20 victory.

The Flames (0-1) kept things reasonably close throughout, as the Football Championship Subdivision squad stayed within two possessions of its opposition for all but a 6:05 stretch in the fourth quarter of the contest.

Much of the success Liberty had (and, concurrently, the frustration the Mountaineers had) was centered around the play of their quarterback Tommy Beecher and receiver Mike Brown.

Beecher was 22-of-33 passing for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Brown was by far the biggest beneficiary of his signal-caller's solid day, grabbing 11 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown. He added a nine-yard scoring run as well.

"People think just because you have a I-AA team come in here (you should win easily)," said West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart. "Does anybody in this room think Mike Brown couldn't play for us? I think he could. He can play."

But Liberty wasn't the only team with a player named Brown who had a stellar day.

Mountaineer quarterback Jarrett Brown was 19-of-26 passing for 243 yards. The fifth-year senior ran for 69 additional yards on his nine carries, including a 22-yard touchdown scamper when he recognized a weakness in the opposing defense, audibled at the line of scrimmage and executed a draw play to perfection.

"They went cover zero," Stewart explained. "No one ever did that to (former quarterback) Pat (White), and they found out they better not do that to Jarrett. That ol' long-legged guy can get it."

"It was a heady play – a very, very heady play."

Noel Devine gained 112 yards on his 17 carries and scored a touchdown. Jock Sanders grabbed eight catches for 95 yards, and redshirt freshman kicker Tyler Bitancurt had a stellar debut, tying the Milan Puskar Stadium record for most field goals made in a game by converting on all of his four attempts.

The game remained very close throughout, as both teams answered each other's scoring strikes during a competitive first half of play.

After the Mountaineers opted to receive the opening kickoff and Mark Rodgers returned it to his team's 40-yard line, the offense drove to the Liberty 17-yard line before a Noel Devine fumble and loss of six yards stopped the momentum.

Bitancurt hit a 38-yard field goal, his first of three in the opening half , to give West Virginia an early 3-0 lead.

An old bugaboo from last season promptly reared its head afterwards, as the Flames' Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards, just into WVU territory.

A late hit penalty on safety Robert Sands, who dove into Beecher as he slid, aided Liberty's drive. WVU's veteran defense held in the red zone as it often did a season ago, and the visitors had to settle for a 32-yard field goal from Matt Bevins and a tied game.

Brown and the Mountaineer offense promptly answered back, driving 76 yards in 10 plays. Ryan Clarke ran in from two yards out on his first career carry to make the score 10-3 in favor of the home team.

But even holding Liberty to a mere three yards on the ensuing kickoff return (wasn't enough to stop the Big South Conference squad from answering. Beecher completed a 33 yard pass to Brown to move the Flames to the West Virginia 40-yard line.

After Jeff Casteel's defense held Beecher and company on three plays in Mountaineer territory, Liberty's fourth-down conversion attempt paid off. Beecher found Brown, who finished the first half with 75 receiving yards, for a 20-yard touchdown on 4th-and-2 to tie the game at 10-10 in the opening minutes of the second quarter.

West Virginia's own Brown again drove his offense down field on the ensuing possession, completing passes of 28 and 21 yards to Sanders and Bradley Starks, respectively. After a holding penalty on center Joey Madsen appeared to stymie the Mountaineers' momentum, Brown took things into his own hands.

On third-and-13 from the Flames' 22-yard line, the quarterback recognized the defense was in a cover zero – meaning no safety help was in position to make a play. He audibled at the line and faked a screen pass to the flank before quickly tucking the ball in and taking off upfield. He found a crease and dove across the goal line for a 22-yard touchdown to make the score 17-10.

That gave WVU a bit of momentum it would hold for the rest of the first half. The defense, which had struggled to contain Beecher and Brown, finally forced the game's first punt in the middle of the second quarter.

Passes of 22 and 16 yards from Brown (caught by Alric Arnett and Tyler Urban, respectively) moved Jeff Mullen's offense into Liberty territory, but the drive stalled just inside the red zone. Bitancurt's 35-yard kick made it 20-10 with only 1:58 left in the half.

Liberty's offense once again had good field position after a 39-yard kickoff return by Mike Brown, but a holding penalty on the first play of the drive proved too big of a hole to dig out of. The WVU defense held on three plays and gave their offensive teammates the ball back with 1:03 left to work.

A personal foul on the Flames helped get the drive started, and Brown hit Urban once more for a 33-yard gain before he was tackled at the Liberty 31-yard line.

Bitancurt's third field goal of the game, this one from 45 yards away, extended the advantage to 23-10 as the teams went into the locker room.

The teams exchanged punts to start the second half before Liberty put together yet another drive against West Virginia's much-hyped defense. Aldreakis Allen ran for 17 yards to his team's 42-yard line, and Beecher found Brown for 17 more just two plays later.

A third-down pass from Beecher fell to the turf harmlessly, and the Flames settled for another field goal, this one a 49-yarder, from Bevins to draw within 23-13.

But as was the theme of the afternoon, the Mountaineer offense answered the call once more. A methodical 11 play, 44 yard drive was capped by Bitancurt's fourth and final field goal of the day. Stewart's squad led 26-13 at the end of the third quarter after the placekicker's 36-yarder sailed through the uprights.

WVU's defense continued to frustrate Liberty for the most part from that point forward.

The Flames did work themselves out of a hole in the fourth quarter, when a Scott Kozlowski punt was downed by Stewart's special teams unit at the 1-yard line.

Allen ran for 14 yards on the second play of that drive to get his offense's heels out of its own end zone, but Beecher was intercepted six plays later by Sands.

The starting offense finally put things out of reach at that point by putting together a lightning-quick scoring drive. WVU's Brown hit Sanders for a 38 yard reception on the first play after Sands' pick. The recently reinstated Sanders extended his arms and just got his fingers onto a powerfully-thrown ball from the signal-caller.

One play later, Devine was the beneficiary of a well-blocked zone read, as he found a massive gap around the left end of the line and raced untouched 24 yards into the end zone to extend the lead to 33-13.

Liberty did manage one last scoring drive against a defense largely composed of Mountaineer backups, as the Flames' Brown ran in for nine yards with under a minute remaining to set the final score.

"The last touchdown was frustrating," Stewart said. "A guy got inside our guy. I knew who was going to carry it and I think everybody here did, too."

West Virginia (1-0) will next face an opponent also coming off a tougher-than-anticipated match-up with an FCS opponent, as week two opponent East Carolina narrowly avoided being upset by in-state foe Appalachian State on Saturday.

And while there is much to work on between now and next weekend's kickoff, Stewart said that starting the season off with a victory was what mattered most.

"I thought our guys played hard," he said. "I didn't think they played super smart."


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