MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Blue defense held the Gold offense scoreless on 15 of 21 possessions to win West Virginia’s spring game 41-33 on Saturday.
Travis Bell, two days after shifting from safety to cornerback, netted the game’s only interception and the defense registered six sacks. Under the modified scoring system, the defense netted five points for a three-and-out, three points for a drive stop and three points for a turnover.
Coming off an underwhelming 7-6 season, WVU wrapped up a competitive spring practice before an estimated crowd of around 10,000 fans.
“I’ve said all spring, we’ve got a long ways to go,” said coach Dana Holgorsen. “It was nice to see a couple guys step up and make some plays.
“The team that we field in September is going to look a lot different. We have so many new guys coming in, and we have so many young guys that are going to continue to develop.”
With eight defensive starters returning, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was pleased to see improved communication and fewer blown assignments, particularly among the first unit. However, the second unit ended the afternoon by allowing a 24-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play from scrimmage.
“It’s more than just knowing down and distances,” Patterson said. “What’s the situation? What’s the vertical field? How much time is on the clock? You got 10 seconds left on the clock, so they’re probably going to throw the football into the end zone, and yet we bust a coverage.”
Though Paul Millard and Ford Childress each threw for glowing percentages, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson was disappointed that they combined to take six sacks.
“Taking sacks gets you beat,” Dawson said. “We’re giving up sacks we shouldn’t give up. If you sit in the pocket for three, four, five seconds and get sacked, you can’t do that. If that’s what they’re going to do, then neither one of them can play.
“You’ve got to have an internal clock in your head at quarterback. You’ve got to speed up your body and you’ve got to be able to get rid of the ball.”
The junior-to-be Millard finished 16-of-27 passing for 185 yards and three touchdowns, though he was sacked four times.
Childress, the redshirt freshman, completed 14-of-21 for 169 yards and one touchdown — a 65-yarder to Jordan Thompson. His deep-post throw intended for freshman Daikiel Shorts was underthrown an picked off by Bell.
With first-stringer Andrew Buie (hamstring) sidelined, Dustin Garrison averaged 7.3 yards per carry. The junior gained 51 yards on seven carries, highlighted by a 19-yarder, though Dawson said coaches went away from the running game in order to shift pressure to the quarterbacks.
Junior college transfer Dreamius Smith showed nice bounce-out speed on a 15-yard run, finishing with 38 yards on seven carries. He also looked smooth hauling in an 8-yard catch.
Wendell Smallwood, the true freshman, ran seven times for 25 yards.
Sophomore Jordan Thompson caught three touchdowns among his game-high six catches, but junior college signee Kevin White turned in the day’s most dazzling play — weaving through tacklers on a 46-yard touchdown screen pass from Millard.
“He looked really explosive,” said Childress, who watched in amazement from the sideline. “On that screen that he took down (the field), he looked like an animal out there.”
White finished with five catches for 72 yards.
Connor Arlia and freshman Daikiel Shorts made four catches each for 39 and 31 yards, respectively.
Linebackers Sean Walters and Shaq Petteway each registered a team-high five tackles each, including one for loss. Nick Kwiatkoski, K.J. Dillon, Darwin Cook, Eric Kinsey and Dozie Ezemma made four stops each.
While recovering from shoulder surgery, Bell figured to miss most of spring drills. But the junior was cleared last week and returned to practice, albeit at cornerback. On Saturday, he foiled a bubble screen by tackling Vernon Davis for a 2-yard gain, and then Bell undercut the downfield route to intercept Childress.
Holgorsen suggested the move was permanent, though he tempered the excitement over Bell’s big plays.
“He made one play where the receiver just forgot to block him, and I could have probably made that play,” Holgorsen joked. “On his interception, he undercut it, but the ball was so underthrown. I’m not saying I could have made that one, but I would’ve been in position.
“But he has embraced the change, and he’s excited about it. He can run fast, and he has great conditioning. It is an experiment that we talked about a week ago, and we moved him. We’ll keep looking into it.”
Patterson said the 180-pound Bell was undersized at safety but “brings something a little bit different” to the boundary corner position with his physical play.
“And he’s explosive,” Patterson said, “as you saw when he gets a chance to break on the ball.”
KICKING INTO GEAR
Redshirt freshman kicker Josh Lambert missed twice from long range in the first half — missing wide right on a 41-yard try and short from 48 yards out. But he rebounded to convert from 39 and 47 yards in the second half.
The Iron Mountaineer Awards went to receiver Connor Arlia, linebacker Isaiah Bruce and defensive end Will Clarke recognizing them as the top performers in WVU’s offseason strength and conditioning program
Arlia also received the Tom Nickolich Award as the top walk-on. The honor pays tribute to the former WVU player (1979-82) who died of cancer in 1983.
“He’s a tremendous kid,” Holgorsen said of Arlia, a Weirton-Madonna High graduate. “He’s a guy that you want on your team. He’s not the most talented kid that we have, but he works his tail off. He has earned his right to be on this team.”