MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A game West Virginia controlled for nearly all of three quarters almost turned into one of the more heartbreaking setbacks the Mountaineers have suffered in the last decade.
Following an interception thrown by Jarret Doege that allowed No. 15 Virginia Tech to start in the red zone with 2:11 remaining, the West Virginia defense held the Hokies on four straight plays inside the 5-yard line to preserve a 27-21 victory in front of 60,022 at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“[It was a] great win,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “I’m really happy for our team and our fans. I’m worn out. I feel like I played. It’s a good thing I didn’t, but it felt like I did. This was going to be a grind-out game from the start and I thought it was very evenly matched.”
With the victory, the Mountaineers (2-1) regained possession of the Black Diamond Trophy and notched their first win since 2003 over Virginia Tech, which held the hardware for 6,195 days.
“I’m just glad to bring the trophy back to Morgantown,” said WVU tailback Leddie Brown, who rushed for a season-high 161 yards. “It’s a big thing we had this week. At the beginning of the week, it was 6,190 days and coach Brown was counting down each day. Today was the 6,195th day and we brought it back to Morgantown.”
Looking to find Isaiah Esdale on a wide receiver screen, Doege was picked off on third-and-10 by Jermaine Waller, who returned it 11 yards to the WVU 17, before being brought down by Bryce Ford-Wheaton.
The interception followed a false start penalty that doubled the distance of WVU’s third down.
“He floated the ball a little bit,” Neal Brown said. “We want to throw that in the ground, but I’ll take the hit on that. I should’ve put him in a better position.”
The Hokies (2-1) got 14 yards on a pair of runs to put themselves in prime position to take their first lead of the game. But Jalen Holston lost 1 yard on two rushing attempts, which led to Braxton Burmeister’s incompletion on third-and-goal at the 4.
Burmeister’s fourth down pass was broken up by defensive back Jackie Matthews with 45 seconds left, sealing West Virginia’s 19th straight non-conference win at home.
The Mountaineers felt comfortable with the look the Hokies presented on fourth down, comparing it to a play they run while working on two-point situations in practice.
“In practice, almost every day we work our two-point plays,” WVU safety Alonzo Addae. “We’ve seen that play and it’s about executing the call. Everybody stayed on their assignment and did their job and you saw the result.”
There were plenty of positives for the Mountaineers until late in the third quarter after they had built a 27-7 lead. On their final series of the third, the Hokies converted on third-and-24 with Burmeister’s 25-yard run. Two plays later, Raheem Blackshear’s 20-yard touchdown run cut the WVU lead to 27-14 with 1 second left in the frame.
On WVU’s ensuing series, TyJuan Garbutt sacked Doege and caused a fumble that V-Tech’s Alan Tisdale recovered at the Hokies’ 48.
The Hokies got into the red zone and looked set to make it a one-score game until WVU forced a fourth-and-6 — a play that resulted in Jared Bartlett sacking Burmeister and forcing a fumble that Lance Dixon recovered. It was Bartlett’s third sack of the second half.
“The tackles are good tackles — I’m not going to knock them. But my advantage is pass rushing speed and speed on the edge really helped me today,” Bartlett said.
A three-and-out immediately give the ball back to Tech, which got a 29-yard TD pass from Burmeister to Holston on third-and-17 to close to within six points with 3:10 remaining.
Looking to seal the game with one first down, WVU had a play for second-string quarterback Garrett Greene on what was a third-and-5 prior to James Gmiter’s false start. Doege then threw his only interception at an inopportune time.
“We didn’t handle it well. The good thing is that we were able to overcome it,” Neal Brown said. “It’s a lot easier to teach stuff off a win than it is a loss, at least end-of-game situations. There are some things that we struggle with that they took take advantage of at the end. We tried a bunch of different things, but we just struggled to grind it out.”
It was a sour offensive ending to what had been a strong performance for much of the game.
Doege narrowly missed connecting with Sam James for a long gain on the Mountaineers’ first play from scrimmage, but it didn’t matter when Leddie Brown rushed for an 80-yard TD on the next play — a score that was aided greatly by center Zach Frazier’s blocking.
“The only thing I’m thinking of at that moment is get to that end zone,” Leddie Brown said.
Following a second straight three-and-out from VT, Doege connected with Ford-Wheaton for a 29-yard TD pass, upping the WVU lead to 14-0 just 5:49 into the contest.
Burmeister’s 23-yard pass to Tayvion Robinson produced the Hokies’ first points and finished off a 75-yard drive that allowed them to trim the deficit in half with 3:11 left in the opening quarter.
Two minutes into the second quarter, Burmeister was stopped short by Sean Mahone on fourth-and-1 from the WVU 25.
The Mountaineers added to their lead midway through the period when Doege found Sam James for a 16-yard touchdown.
“We did not play well in the first half, and I am not taking credit away from coach Brown,” Hokies’ head coach Justin Fuente said. “They did a few things that had us off-balance on both offense and defense. They really dominated the first half.”
WVU had first-and-goal on the 2 late in the opening half, but never incorporated Brown on third plays inside the 5 and was forced to settle for Casey Legg’s 21-yard field goal and a 24-7 advantage.
When Blackshear took the ensuing kickoff 78 yards, it appeared the Hokies would be within two possessions at halftime, but the sequence ended with John Parker Romo missing a 24-yard field goal.
The Mountaineers added to their lead on the first series of the second half with Legg’s 44-yard field goal.
“I definitely feel nerves, but I try to block all the outside stuff out,” Legg said. “The pressure isn’t really too bad if you don’t think about scenarios and stuff like that. Definitely had some nerves, but I felt more excitement than pressure.”
Doege passed completed 15-of-26 passes for 193 yards. James and Esdale tied for the team-lead with 46 receiving yards.
The Mountaineers finished with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
“Outside of a few plays, that was the best job we’ve done rushing the passer and playing quality team defense at all three levels,” Neal Brown said.
Burmeister threw for 207 yards. WVU held Blackshear and Holston to 42 rushing yards apiece, as the Hokies were limited to 101 yards on 39 attempts.
“It was a little ugly there at the end,” Neal Brown said, “but at the end of the day, it goes down as a win.”