MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Neal Brown’s hotly anticipated West Virginia debut nearly turned into a massive dud, but the Mountaineers made enough plays in the fourth quarter to turn back upset-minded James Madison 20-13.
“I was really proud of how this group reacted at halftime. They didn’t hit the panic button,” Brown said. “We took control of the game from the first drive in the second half on throughout.
“Winning’s hard. I knew it would be. But we’ll take it. We’re 1-0.”
Diminutive wide receiver Tevin Bush broke free from his man to get wide-open for a 22-yard touchdown reception to give the Mountaineers a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. The play was a rare third-down conversion for West Virginia in the game. WVU was 6 of 18 on third down.
The Mountaineers took advantage of a short field on the possession thanks to senior cornerback Keith Washington’s interception at the James Madison 37. Dukes quarterback Ben DiNucci rolled out of pressure near his own 10, but rather than throwing the ball away he chucked it where no one but Washington was going to come down with it.
“I just covered my guy down the field and saw the D-line getting pressure as [DiNucci] was rolling out,” Washington said. “I saw a receiver coming from the opposite side of the field, and I made a play.”
The interception occurred on James Madison’s first possession after Evan Staley’s 43-yard field goal put West Virginia up 13-10 with 10:26 left in the game.
James Madison responded to Bush’s touchdown with a drive that resulted in a 31-yard field goal. West Virginia’s defense didn’t allow any extra damage, forcing JMU into a three-and-out on its next possession. The Dukes got one last gasp with 57 seconds left following a West Virginia punt, but DiNucci seemed to lose track of time, tucking the ball for an ill-advised run as time winded down.
The Mountaineers offense struggled mightily in the first half, especially when it tried running the ball. West Virginia gained an anemic 18 rushing yards on 10 carries in the opening half and had 107 yards of total offense.
“The offense wasn’t pretty. We struggled to run it,” Brown said. “But we didn’t turn it over.”
The rushing game didn’t get any better in the second half. WVU finished the game with 34 yards on 24 rushes. Quarterback Austin Kendall picked up the slack, though, connecting on 27 of 42 pass attempts for 260 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“He won the game,” Brown said. “He handled the end-of-game situations well. He was accurate at times, but missed some underneath throws late in the first half and got frustrated. I thought he played better in the second half. He checked some plays and threw the ball better.
“We have to get better at the deep ball. Some of that was because he was so amped-up. He probably overthrew five go-balls.”
WVU needed plays in all three phases to win. In addition to Washington’s interception, West Virginia recovered a muffed punt and forced a first-quarter fumble. Darius Stills also blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.
“It came down to turnovers and special teams,” Brown said.