WACO, Texas — West Virginia’s most encouraging performance and discouraging result of Neal Brown’s first season happened all at the same time in a 17-14 defeat at No. 12 Baylor on Halloween night.
Sophomore defensive lineman Dante Stills said it was the hardest loss he’s ever experienced.
“When you invest so much into this football game and come up short, it hurts a lot,” said Stills, who had two sacks to go along with a trio from older brother Darius. “You should have seen the faces in the locker room. We’re probably the hardest-working team in the whole conference. And coming up short hurts a lot.”
Badly undermanned and totally dominated from a statistical perspective, Brown coached his team well enough to make up for multiple talent deficits to stare the Big 12’s final unbeaten team in the face without flinching.
At the same time, Brown also cost his team with the biggest blunder of his young tenure — one that fans will have to hope remains with that label whenever his West Virginia tenure comes to its conclusion.
The heavily favored Bears (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) won by a field goal, but the Mountaineers (3-5, 1-4) squandered a golden chance to hand Baylor its first loss, or at least extend the game to overtime.
“There’s a lot of guys hurting in that locker room,” Brown said. “I don’t know if we got beat, but we came up short. Our kids really competed. We had a great week of preparation. I felt really good about this game coming in. I just hurt for our guys. I’m proud of them. It’s not OK to lose, but I’m proud of them.”
As backup kicker Casey Legg lined up for the first field goal of his life late in the fourth quarter — they didn’t even have a football team at his high school alma mater, Cross Lanes Christian — Brown somehow lost track of the play clock. Legg’s 43-yard attempt went through the uprights, but whistles had already started blowing to indicate the play was dead — typically the sign of a last-second timeout called before the snap.
There was no timeout. The referee blew the whistle to stop play for a West Virginia delay of game.
“That’s my fault,” Brown said. “We have people in charge of looking at the clock, but that’s my fault. I’m sitting here worried about how we’re going to use our timeouts and how we’re going to kick off, and I didn’t see the clock. That’s on me.”
Brown placed himself in front of the bus when asked who should have signaled to him when the play clock was running low.
“It was my fault,” Brown said. “Bottom line, I’m the head coach. My fault.”
Legg, filling in for the injured Evan Staley, would now have to attempt his first career attempt from 48 yards into the open end of the stadium with 3:36 left to play against the 12th-ranked team in the country.
Baylor defensive lineman Bravvion Roy delivered the seemingly inevitable outcome of the re-do, blocking Legg’s attempt. It’s the ninth time the Bears have blocked a kick in their past 12 games.
West Virginia’s defense, which played doggedly all night, had a chance to bail Brown out with another stop. With Baylor facing a third-and-17 on the ensuing possession, it appeared the Mountaineers were poised to do just that. But Baylor coach Matt Rhule went for the whole bag of candy with a gutsy play call.
“I said throw it,” Rhule said. “Throw it to Tyquan. Tommy Tuberville did that to me years ago [at Cincinnati], and I always put it away in my head… I don’t usually call the plays, but every once in a while I’ll come in and say, ‘Do this.'”
The Bears went deep, with quarterback Charlie Brewer finding receiver Tyquan Thornton 43 yards downfield against a clearly banged-up Keith Washington. Washington, a cornerback by nature, was actually playing safety on the play with linebacker Exree Loe lined up in the normal cornerback slot.
Thornton and Washington both had their hands on the ball as they tumbled towards the ground, but Thornton was ruled to be the one with possession when they landed. The play was not reviewed.
“That was the backbreaker,” Brown said. “I didn’t see how it landed.”
The Mountaineers stopped Baylor’s progress from there to get the ball one final time, but began their final possession on their own 5 with 38 seconds left and no timeouts.
Already plagued by injuries and offseason defections, West Virginia’s defense was down two safeties in the fourth quarter. Starter Josh Norwood was ejected for a targeting penalty — his second of the season — and replacement Noah Guzman left with an injury after recording a team-high 11 tackles.
West Virginia finished with a season-high 8 sacks. It was WVU’s highest single-game total since sacking Pitt 10 times in the final installment of the Backyard Brawl in 2011.
Baylor outgained West Virginia by a margin of 453-219 while maintaining possession for 36:26. The Mountaineers rushed for 14 yards on 26 attempts, though the total was skewed by two errant shotgun snaps that cost them 48 yards.