STILLWATER, Okla. — Oh let us count the times this game had us fooled.
Like when thousands fled Boone Pickens Stadium at halftime, convinced the 17-point deficit looked too daunting. Or that time Oklahoma State faced third-and-20 with its comeback hanging by a thread. Or when Will Grier rebooted his Horns-down keeper and put West Virginia up 10 in the fourth quarter.
On each occasion, the Mountaineers wielded the leverage of a day and a season. It was just a matter of finishing.
But like elections in Broward County, Big 12 outcomes are never finalized at first blush.
West Virginia needed only to finish off a .500 team that was missing its best running back, its No. 1 tight end and its starting center. As road obstacles go, that’s not too much to ask.
Instead, the Mountaineers choked on a 6-foot-6 Corndog.
Taylor Cornelius won’t be remembered among OSU’s celebrated greats, but on Senior Day of an otherwise lamentable season, he momentarily climbed into their realm.
Five touchdown passes, including the go-ahead strike to Tylan Wallace with 42 seconds left. Just as important was Cornelius rushing for a TD with 4:47 remaining, a third-down option keeper on which Cornelius covered 9 yards by dodging one defender and lumbering through two more.
“You could see him moving and he wasn’t that fast,” said defensive end Zeke Rose, struggling to explain the collapse.
Call Cornelius “The Stillwater Statue” if you must, but West Virginia’s defense — alleged to be the fastest Tony Gibson has ever fielded — couldn’t gain ground on him in crucial situations. The big guy proved too savvy with his tuck-it timing, and OSU’s four-receiver sets spread the defense too thin.
Cornelius ran for 106 yards (three times his season average), and the man’s mojo spread throughout a team we wrongly presumed to be catatonic after losing at Oklahoma. The Cowboys sure looked out of sorts when they fell behind 31-14, but they countered by blistering West Virginia 31-10 in the second half.
“A team can get in the situation and think ‘Here we go again,’ and not come through,” said OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “But our guys punched through. They broke through the glass.”
With No. 2 running back Chuba Hubbard cranking up, Wallace being Wallace, and Dillon Stoner evolving into a nemesis, Oklahoma State became unstoppable. Four touchdowns and a field goal on six possessions in the second half.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen — already burned on a fourth-down gamble inside the OSU 5-yard line — could only pray that his offense could retaliate, because the defense had become a leaky, obliterated mess.
Gibson confided this to me after the game.
“I knew we were on the ropes, that we were struggling,” he said. “So yeah, Dana and I were communicating on the headsets. I was all for those fourth-down tries. Go for it and try to score some points.”
The desperation turned so palpable that Holgorsen, leading by three points inside the 3-minute mark, kept his offense on the field for a fourth-and-6 try in his own territory. We’ll never know the result of that decision because David Sills false-started, after which Holgorsen couldn’t summon the nerve to try a fourth-and-11.
“It’s disappointing that we had a chance to close them out and we didn’t,” said Holgorsen. “They have been in a lot of these games, and you can tell they had a little bit better mindset down the stretch than we did.”
While Saturday’s failure eliminates West Virginia from the College Football Playoffs, a berth in the Big 12 title game remains achievable. All it demands is beating Oklahoma next week.
Of course, in six tries as Big 12 members, the Mountaineers have never punched through the Sooners’ glass. But as this weekend’s painful lesson at Boone Pickens proved, turnarounds can blind-side you.