MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There was shame in the distance, humiliation on the horizon and mortification taking hold in the mountains.
Forget the spiking frequency with which FCS teams have begun kneecapping the BCS big boys—five times this very weekend, in fact. And realize that these upsets become topical only because they’re not supposed to happen.
What nearly happened to West Virginia at the under-resourced hands of William & Mary would have made the Pinstripe Bowl feel downright encouraging. Drop this game inexplicably to a lower-level squad and eight months of personnel upgrades and pride installations would have been dynamited into the exosphere.
Fortunately for the Mountaineers, there is a slim line between ravage and reprieve, a line that Saturday arched 69 yards from the shoulder of Paul Millard to the hands of Ronald Carswell. Their deep-post hookup late in the third quarter leveled the score and re-energized the heavy favorites at a time when panic was creeping into relevance.
And while Millard-to-Carswell potentially saved WVU from the Labor Day losers’ club of Kansas State, Oregon State, UConn and South Florida, it was the previous play—a seemingly innocuous 4-yard slant to Carswell—that had offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson convinced to strike deep.
“I knew it was six points right then, the play before,” he said. “Because we had them set up.”
Set up by a running game that, according to head coach Dana Holgorsen, finally had William & Mary’s safeties engaged after more than 40 minutes of action.
“Seeing as how we were running the ball like 80-percent of the time,” Holgorsen said almost in self-mockery, “if I was them, I would have probably screwed those safeties down as well.”
In the coaches’ booth upstairs, Dawson recognized WVU “had a little bit of a bead on that certain formation” and how the Tribe would defend it more tightly than others.
Starving for an explosive play as much as his boss, Dawson only hoped his guys could execute: “I just knew if we could throw and catch, we’d have it.”
Millard, the kid who learned only the night before that he would make his first college start, had no qualms about the throwing part of the equation. He knew the heavy package would entice the safeties toward the line, and he knew Carswell has the wheels to capitalize. Millard only hoped to be more accurate than he was on an earlier deep pass that floated too long for Ivan McCartney.
The quarterback’s self-instruction while awaiting the snap? “Make sure I don’t overthrow the guy. I knew the play was probably going to be good, because it was everything we wanted. I just wanted to give Ronnie a catchable ball.”
On the other end, Carswell needed to beat cornerback Jesse McNeal to the middle, which he did easily, and the junior college transfer appearing in his first Division I game angled across the vacated field, tracking Millard’s bomb in stride.
“I was excited to see (Carswell) in there because he’s got juice—he can run,” said Holgorsen. “KJ (Myers) and Ivan are physical and they’re going to get their hands on people and make great possession catches, but they can’t run like Ronnie can. So it was time for him to get in there and get behind (the secondary), and he did.”
The juice was loose for West Virginia, and loose, mind you, at a time when the prospect of an embarrassing upset was about to turn tight. The aftershock of a close call like Saturday’s 24-17 win is minuscule compared to what Virginia Tech endures three years after its lost afternoon against James Madison.
“We’ll probably get more out of that win than we would have if it was easy,” Dawson said. “Because we got to see people perform when we were getting beat, perform when it was tough.”