MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The stadium was nearly full, but not quite.
Texas and its unblemished Big 12 record appeared cooked, but not quite.
And West Virginia could sense an upset in its clutch, but not quite.
Such is the agonizing summary of WVU football, this season and last. The 2012 Mountaineers won seven games and were called underachievers. The 2013 Mountaineers, who must win out to even reach seven, feel more like overachievers.
Yet both teams are linked by an inability to leverage key moments, and the late-game malfunctions against Texas kept that trend intact.
Leading by three points in the final 6:34, West Virginia began munching clock, picking up a first down and approaching another. Facing second-and-1 at its 35, WVU could see the finish line, perhaps as close as one more surge away. One more yard from a fresh set of downs that would, at the very least, force Texas to expend its timeouts. One more yard from demoralizing the Horns completely.
But twice Texas stopped WVU cold. First Sims for no gain, and then Dreamius Smith for minus-1—each time by a defensive back squirting into the backfield.
“That cost us,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “You make a first down there, you probably run the clock out and the defense doesn’t have to come on the field.”
Said head boss Dana Holgorsen of the stop that gave Texas life: “We called two consecutive run plays and we didn’t get a yard. It’s tough to take.”
It was made even tougher by Nick O’Toole duffing a 30-yard punt with 2:35 left. The kid with the normally-nuclear leg shanked a punt at TCU the previous week in a similar scenario. Just as the Frogs marched into field-goal range then, so did Texas this time.
But the Horns needed another gift to force OT, one that arrived on fourth-and-7 at midfield, when West Virginia’s blitz pressured Case McCoy into a quick throw. He went to Jaxon Shipley on a slant, a route that should have been stamped out by cornerback Travis Bell playing tight man coverage. But Bell played too soft and Shipley picked up 9 yards uncontested.
“We get them to fourth down, game on the line, got the exact call we want,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “We’re about to hit the quarterback, when we back up, sit there and let him catch it right at the sticks.”
Once Anthony Fera’s 24-yard kick forced overtime, McCoy made two more passes his big brother must have loved: A third-down 14-yarder to Marcus Johnson at the 5, followed by a third-down play-action touchdown to Alex De La Torre for the lead. Neither one of those guys made a catch in regulation.
How did West Virginia counter? By flipping an end-around reverse to emerging playmaker Mario Alford, who scooted 20 yards to the 5. The same 5-yard line from where Texas punched in the go-ahead score previously. Texas needed three cracks to get it done, WVU took four and couldn’t.
The Mountaineers trudged off the field still two wins shy of bowl-eligibility, filing into a locker room that receiver Kevin White characterized as “depressed.”
“This should have been another win under our belt, but obviously it’s not,” he said.
Instead it became a reminder of how this team lost a second-half lead for the third time in four games. Even the night-hyped atmosphere at Mountaineer Field couldn’t reverse the trend.
“It would have been a good win for us,” said Holgorsen, whose team fell to 6-10 in Big 12 games. “We just weren’t able to make the play when it counted.”
West Virginia has yet to win back-to-back games this season, something it must do against Kansas and Iowa State in order to be one of those so-so 6-6 teams that plays football during the holidays. While WVU must use pride as an incentive, Texas continues playing for a Big 12 title, one the Mountaineers seemed capable of snatching away at times Saturday.
“To leave everything out there on the field and still come up short, that hurts a lot,” said Sims, who didn’t put much stock in his three touchdowns and 93 yards rushing. “It just wasn’t enough.”