MORGANTOWN, W.Va.— Paul Millard threw a game-tying 69-yard touchdown pass, Charles Sims topped the 100-yard mark and freshman Wendell Smallwood scored the late go-ahead TD as West Virginia beat FCS member William & Mary 24-17.
The Mountaineers had to overcome a 10-point halftime, hardly the blowout many of the 56,350 in attendance expected. But less than 24 hours after Kansas State succumbed to FCS member North Dakota State, WVU felt relieved to merely get a victory, even one that seemed too close for comfort.
“Obviously we’ve got a long ways to go,” said coach Dana Holgorsen after the game. “But there are plenty of FCS teams out there that are happier right now than William & Mary are after beating an FBS team. It happens every week. We are fortunate it didn’t happen to us.”
Sims ran for 120 yards on 23 carries and Dreamius Smith added 40 yards on 12 attempts. But it was Smallwood getting the crucial handoff on WVU’s goal-line package with 3:22 left, powering through tacklers on a 2-yard run.
Darwin Cook promptly ended the underdogs’ comeback hopes by picking off Michael Graham.
“I told Cookie early in the week ‘You’re going to pick that pass off,’” said WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “And when he saw the under route, he knew exactly what was coming and sat all over it.”
William & Mary, which upset Virginia in 2010 and lost to Maryland 7-6 last season, put up 309 yards of offense. But after being blanked in the second half, there was no talk of a moral victory.
“We’ve been there, done that,” said Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock. “When a player comes to William & Mary, he knows he’s going to have the opportunity once a year to line up in one of these big ballgames.”
Sims’ 11-yard touchdown run capped WVU’s opening drive, a 67-yard march that began with Millard taking the field and settling the preseason-long question of who would be the starting quarterback.
But those were the only points of the first half for West Virginia (1-0), which missed a 55-yard field goal on its next series and then punted on the ensuing three.
“When you have success early and you’re inexperienced, you start thinking this is easy,” said Mountaineers offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “I could sense a lull.”
Meanwhile, William & Mary (0-1) reeled off 17 unanswered points, aided by the big-play receiving of Tre McBride. His 40-yard catch over WVU cornerback Icky Banks set up the Tribe’s tying score—a 1-yard toss from Graham to Darnell Laws. And on the next possession, McBride hauled in a 28-yarder over safety Karl Joseph, setting up Graham’s 5-yard scoring scramble.
A Millard fumble on a sack led to the Tribe’s 29-yard field goal 23 seconds before halftime.
And into the lockerroom the Mountaineers went, trailing 17-7 to a team they were favored to beat by 33 points.
“I just wanted to stay calm and keep those guys on offense calm,” Millard said.
WVU appeared calm in opening the third quarter with a 15-play, 70-yard drive that nearly led to a touchdown. But Sims was barely tripped up at the 4 by safety Jerome Couplin, forcing Josh Lambert to come on for a 22-yard field goal that trimmed the gap to 17-10.
On their next drive, the Mountaineers tied it with Millard finding Ronald Carswell on a 69-yard post pattern. It was the flashiest throw of the day for Millard, who seemingly seized the job with a 19-of-25 passing performance for 237 yards.
West Virginia’s next two drives ended in punts, though they were boomers as Nick O’Toole struck for 56 and 60 yards. The latter came out of his own end zone midway through the fourth quarter and pinned William & Mary back at its own 25.
Four plays later, William & Mary punted and WVU took over at midfield, poised for its decisive drive.