FORT WORTH, Texas — A pair of players who began the season on the bench and their college careers elsewhere provided the winning touch for West Virginia in the 2019 season finale.
Quarterback Jarret Doege finished off his third start as a Mountaineer with a 35-yard touchdown pass to reserve wide receiver Isaiah Esdale, who made an acrobatic move to somehow slip the ball inside the pylon and give West Virginia a 20-17 lead over with TCU with 2:10 remaining.
Doege transferred from Bowling Green last offseason, and Esdale came from Eastern Arizona Community College just days before the start of the 2018 season.
West Virginia’s defense stopped the Horned Frogs twice in the final two minutes to make that lead hold and conclude Neal Brown’s first season on a winning note.
“It says a lot about the buy-in,” Brown said. “And it’s really positive for the future.”
The Mountaineers (5-7, 3-6 Big 12) finished the year winning two of their last three games, both on the road. On paper, West Virginia entered Friday’s game with little to play for while TCU needed a win to reach a bowl game for the 17th time in coach Gary Patterson’s 19-year career.
Regardless of outside ramifications, winning was all that mattered to the Mountaineers. Senior linebacker Shea Campbell said spoiling TCU’s postseason was not a motivator.
“It’s my last game, and I want to win,” said Campbell, who had a team-high eight tackles including 2.5 for loss. “It’s got to be hard for those guys, losing their last game at home and not going to a bowl game. I know the feeling. I’m happy I don’t have to experience that again.”
Neither team was able to get any separation in a game that lived up to its billing as a defensive slugfest. West Virginia only gained 13 first downs. When TCU broke a 10-10 tie on electrifying punt returner Jalen Reagor’s 70-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left in the third quarter, it felt like it might be enough to hold up.
West Virginia’s long-suffering run game provided a lift late in the third quarter when Kennedy McKoy’s season-long 36-yard gain put the Mountaineers deep in TCU territory, but the Mountaineers settled for a 24-yard Evan Staley field goal.
West Virginia was driving for the potential go-ahead score in the middle of the fourth quarter when a season-long habit of shooting itself in the foot cropped up for the umpteenth time.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at the TCU 42, WVU needed to burn a timeout to avoid a delay of game. After the timeout, the Mountaineers lost the yardage anyway when Doege used the wrong cadence for his snap, causing left guard Mike Brown to jump early.
“I was supposed to say ‘hut’ with my voice, but I clapped,” Doege said. “That caused Mike to jump offside. That was definitely all my fault. Thankfully, I got to erase that.”
It wasn’t the only one mistake Doege made Friday. He also threw three interceptions, but the Horned Frogs were unable to turn any of the turnovers into points.
“I’m extremely impressed. Those guys kept us in the game, and have kept us in the game all season,” Doege said of WVU’s defense. “It’s hats off to them, because they play their butts off week-in and week-out. They kept me on my feet today.”
TCU compounded its inability to take advantage of West Virginia’s mistakes by making two of its own on the winning drive. The Horned Frogs gave West Virginia first downs thanks to pass interference and roughing the passer penalties that happened on fourth and third downs, respectively.
Doege made them pay when he saw Esdale streaking down the sideline to the end zone and delivered the perfect throw before getting decked by a TCU blitz.
“I got hit, and I was shocked when I saw the ref throw his hands in the air,” Doege said. “Because I had no clue.”
Esdale, who ended up out of bounds near the front right pylon after making the grab, was just as shocked.
“Everybody was jumping on me and I was like ‘What happened?'” Esdale said. “Then I saw the hands go up and I was like, ‘Oh, I scored.'”
TCU nearly moved into West Virginia territory on a long fourth-down throw from Max Duggan on the ensuing possession, but WVU freshman cornerback Nicktroy Fortune made a perfect play to knock the ball away from TCU receiver Al’Dontre Davis. Fortune was in the game because senior starter Keith Washington had to leave with an injury in the first half.
“I mean, he was in one-on-one coverage for the win. That’s hard on a freshman,” Campbell said. “He’s going to be a dude. We have a lot of guys who will step up going into this offseason. Being productive in November has been huge going into this offseason.
“In the future, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”