MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dana Holgorsen, cautious and clock-aware, faced third-and-17 near the end of West Virginia’s tug-o’-war against Iowa State. So he and Jake Spavital defaulted to the safest option, a draw-play handoff that blossomed into the game-clincher when Kennedy McKoy scooted through a back-pedaling defense and won a race to the first-down marker.
This was prudent and careful at absolutely the right time.
Matt Campbell had already picked the wrong one.
Late third quarter. Iowa State riding a comeback surge. Had shaved a 20-0 deficit in half and faced fourth-and-1 at the goal line. Against the nation’s 106th-rated run defense. Time to saddle up for some big-boy football.
Yet Campbell kicked.
And for all the oatmeal in Cedar Rapids I couldn’t comprehend why.
The coaching Boy Wonder committed a blunder that factored massively into the Cyclones losing 20-16. His explanation, while not irrational, lacked the guts his program had suddenly developed during the previous month:
“I thought we were playing really good on defense and we could get the ball back.”
Look, Campell’s a bright coach with motivational moxie, and Iowa State’s rapid rise to relevance will make him beloved in Ames or fabulously rich someplace else. It just won’t make him right about that fourth-and-1 call.
Yes, Iowa State was missing 631 pounds of cornfed beef on the line’s right side with Bryce Meeker and Josh Knipfel injured. But West Virginia’s defense was even more hampered — missing its best defensive end, two defensive backs and senior linebacker Xavier Preston who two weeks prior saved the Baylor win by mangling a 2-point try.
Yes, Iowa State needed two scores to catch up, but stationed there, 1 yard from the end zone, would the Cyclones ever see a better chance to solve the touchdown part of that equation?
Iowa State, 105 years removed from winning a conference championship, is too long-suffering to pass up a point-blank shot in a season like this. They can rebound from 14 points down in Norman but a yard in Morgantown seemed too daunting?
Campbell could’ve handed the ball to 115-yard rusher David Montgomery. Could’ve gone wildcat with Joel “LanRam” Lanning. Could’ve lobbed a pass toward 6-foot-5 Allen Lazard, who schooled a shorter cornerback for a touchdown on the Cyclones’ previous series.
Instead, Campbell went conservative and sent on the one guy who didn’t scare West Virginia in that moment: Place kicker Garrett Owens.
His 18-yard field goal was good but nonetheless an opportunity squandered. Holgorsen admitted the move surprised him. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson called it a huge “momentum swing.” Their giddiness was hard to conceal.
Said Campbell: “I wanted to give ourselves a chance to win it at the end of the football game. And we had our chance.”
Indeed, Iowa State had three more possessions — one that culminated in yet another field goal — but a fourth chance never materialized because of McKoy’s vision on the third-and-forever draw with 2:30 remaining.
West Virginia, after living on its passing exploits all season, ran the ball with renewed vigor Saturday even as Grier completed 20-of-25. He would not attempt a 26th, not even an underneath pass to make fourth down manageable.
“I didn’t want to throw it in fear of an incompletion,” Holgorsen said. “I didn’t want to have an incompletion and give them 40 more seconds to deal with.”
When McKoy broke into the second-level and darted away from safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, time and distance and the inevitable outcome were on the Mountaineers’ side. Two minutes later they had won by four points.
No one needed to remind the Cyclones that this was the margin between a field goal and the 1-yard gut-check that never transpired.