West Virginia Rolls Over USF, Cements Status as Class of the Big East
A hook-and-lateral touchdown just before halftime by Noel Devine via Jock Sanders provided the only fireworks for the Mountaineers, who barely needed any to put South Florida (which falls to 3-3) and its depressed offense away. "In eight quarters we've put up nine points as an offense, we've got to take a hard look at where we are, what we're doing, who we're doing it with, how we're doing it," said South Florida coach Skip Holtz.
West Virginia sophomore quarterback Geno Smith continued to grow in his sixth career start, taking several sacks instead of making poor throws on several third downs. Overall, he completed an efficient 24 of 31 passes, at one point connecting on 13 straight. Perhaps things could have been more explosive, but star tailback Devine has been nursing a bone bruise and shifty receiver Tavon Austin took a kick to the ribs on a kick return in the second quarter that seemed to slow him down.
Getting a less than complete effort from the Mountaineers' most explosive offensive pieces, Smith directed several less-than-memorable scoring drives that totaled almost 20 combined deflating minutes of possession. That, mixed with a zero-turnover showing lulled the visiting Bulls to sleep. "I think coach [Jeff] Mullen gives me the freedom to make some checks based on the defense, and I think for the most part I did a good job with them today."
Smith put the game away with a third quarter drive that took up almost seven minutes of game time, at one point completing a 3rd-and-14 pass to Austin 29 yards downfield thanks to incredible protection. He looked off several covered receivers, kept turning his hips in the pocket, scanning for an opening before finding his man for one of the game's more crucial plays.
A quiet second half of offense gave the Mountaineer defense a chance to shine. Said Smith, "when we get one-dimensional offensively, our defense can pin their ears back and go get them."
The Bulls' offense gained barely 200 yards, with the Mountaineers harassing struggling quarterback B.J. Daniels into a three-interception night. He rushed for just four yards thanks to several sacks and despite a solid 67 percent completion average (connected on 20 of 30 attempts), gained an ineffective 119 yards through the air.
As a runner he was consistently unable to get to the corner as the Mountaineers' defense played fast and limited big play opportunities. It is unclear whether a first quarter injury to his non-throwing hand contributed more heavily to his malaise, but it was clear even before this game he's struggled directing the Bulls' offense of late.
Daniels' modest play has so far been unable to dislodge him as the teams' starter, but offensive coordinator Todd Fitch may have revealed the first seeds of doubt after the game.
"When you're struggling like we have the last two weeks in the conference, you don't want to throw everybody under the bus so to speak, he said. "There's guys that are playing well -- but we have to look at every option we can from quarterback to left tackle to running back to whatever to get the proper people in the right spots."
West Virginia offensive star Sanders reflected the winning team's cohesive mentality, confidently declaring with a huge grin, "I have no doubts about our defense."
All of which is essential to West Virginia's widely unquestioned place as the best team in the Big East, even if the Mountaineers are doing it without the usual excitement and explosiveness we've gotten used to from them. They are far from perfect but play confidently and know how to win games on both offense and defense. Smith's rise has given the offense an unquestioned calmness and poise that gives one confidence that after a bad series or a bad play call, they'll come back and do something a little bit better the next possession.
The next test will come at home following eight days of rest against a resurgent, stingy Syracuse which also owns a victory over the Bulls.