Mountaineers blank TCU after halftime, run win streak to four with 24-21 victory

(Neal Brown postgame press conference)

Neal Brown felt Saturday’s game at TCU was a chance for West Virginia to further display the progress it has made in 2023, while proving the Mountaineers have what it takes to be among the better teams in the Big 12 Conference.

The latter is still up for debate, but by claiming a grueling 24-21 win over the Horned Frogs at Carter Stadium, West Virginia is 2-0 in the Big 12 for the first time in Brown’s five seasons after being projected to finish last in the 14-team league.

“Probably as proud of a football team as I’ve ever been,” Brown said. “What a huge win. TCU is a really good football team. They won a lot of those games last year on their way to the National Championship. I have a ton of respect for them. This was a fight. We’re a team that’s kind of built for ugly football and fights. We have a really tough team that’s really close. It’s a group that’s grown together.

“Our backs have been against the wall. Nobody’s believed in us. I don’t want to hear anybody that said they saw us being 4-1 — nope. The only people that really believed were us. I felt as we went through spring, summer and the end of fall camp, we had a team that was capable of winning close football games.” 

The outcome wasn’t secure until defensive end Sean Martin blocked Griffin Kell’s 55-yard field goal attempt, allowing the Mountaineers (4-1, 2-0) to regain possession with 32 seconds left.

WVU’s second blocked field goal in the final frame came directly after Martin appeared to have sacked TCU (3-2, 1-1) quarterback Chandler Morris, only for the ruling to be overturned to an incomplete pass upon review. 

(Game highlights)

Kell, who was unsuccessful on three field-goal attempts, never got his last try beyond the line of scrimmage because of the 6-foot-5 Martin.

“The previous play, they took my sack away, so I was pretty mad,” Martin said. “Coach told us to come to the sideline and he told us to strike and put our arms up. I strike, put my arm up and blocked the kick with my hand.”

On the Horned Frogs’ second-to-last series, Kell’s 46-yard field goal try was blocked by Mike Lockhart after TCU went for the tie on fourth-and-1 from the Mountaineers’ 28-yard line.

With a chance to seal the win by picking up multiple first downs, WVU was unable to move the chains and quarterback Garrett Greene threw an incomplete pass on third-and-1 that left a final chance for the home team.

Despite losing safety Aubrey Burks to a first-half injury and dealing with injuries to spear Hershey McLaurin and linebacker Trey Lathan in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineer defense continued to rise to the occasion without several key components.

“We’re mentally tough and you saw that tonight,” Brown said. “We had multiple guys go out.”

Ultimately, it was the WVU defense forcing TCU to punt off its goal line that resulted in the Mountaineers starting across midfield and scoring what proved to be game-winning points on Michael Hayes’ 49-yard field goal with 9:31 remaining.

That marked the only scoring play of the fourth quarter, which began with the Mountaineers facing second-and-goal from the TCU 4 with the game tied at 21. Greene completed a 3-yard pass to tight end Kole Taylor, before tailback CJ Donaldson was stopped for no gain on third down and a loss of 1 yard on fourth down. 

“Anytime it’s less than 2 or 3 [yards] down there, you go for it. Even if you don’t get it, I still think it’s the right move,” Brown said.

That left the Mountaineers with a sour feeling as they’d dominated the entirety of the third quarter, a frame in which West Virginia had 129 total yards in to TCU’s 1.

Trailing 21-14 at halftime, West Virginia did produce a tying third-quarter touchdown on Greene’s 1-yard run at the 4:29 mark.

Greene returned to the lineup and started after suffering an injury to his right ankle in the first quarter of a win over Pitt on September 16 that kept him out of last week’s win over Texas Tech. Nicco Marchiol, who quarterbacked the Mountaineers in his first start against the Red Raiders, suffered a midweek ankle injury and was unable to play.

“Garrett practiced a little bit on Tuesday, didn’t practice on Wednesday and I really was planning on going with Nicco, because Garrett went out Tuesday and he really wanted to go and was probably 75 percent. Nicco was healthy,” Brown said. “At that point, I felt [Greene] could have two-plus weeks to prepare for Houston. We didn’t even really practice him on Wednesday, but on Wednesday, right at the end of practice, Nicco rolled his ankle. Thursday morning, it was pretty clear that Nicco wasn’t going to be able to go.“

For as dominant as West Virginia’s defense was in the second half, TCU had little trouble moving the ball over the first two quarters. 

Morris’ 59-yard touchdown pass to JP Richardson left the Mountaineers trailing 7-0 just 2:45 into the game despite the visitors receiving the opening kickoff.

Richardson did the bulk of his damage after the catch and got away from Burks on the long scoring play.

However, the Mountaineers offered an immediate response when Greene answered any questions about his mobility with a 35-yard touchdown run.

“I didn’t think he’d be able to run as well as he did, but the joker is tough,” Brown said. “He’s tough and he’s a winner. He just found a way.”

The teams stayed tied at 7 through the opening quarter as Kell couldn’t connect on a 53-yard field goal later in that period.

However, Morris broke loose for a 31-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter that allowed TCU to lead 14-7.

WVU produced a critical fourth down red zone stop on TCU’s next series that kept the deficit seven, and the Mountaineers pulled even in the late stages of the first half on Donaldson’s 1-yard plunge into the end zone.

Yet just before halftime, Morris found Dylan Wright for a 36-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-3, giving TCU its seven-point lead back.

WVU appeared to draw closer on the final play of the opening half when Hayes split the uprights on a 53-yard field goal, but a false start penalty on Nick Malone wiped out the three points, and Hayes ultimately missed his 58-yard attempt.

“We came into the locker room and cooled down,” Martin said. “We had made some mistakes and missed some opportunities, but we came back out and played hard.”

TCU had 312 of its 433 yards in the first half.

“We got some coverage things fixed and did a little bit better job tackling in space,” Brown said of the improved second-half defense.

Morris completed 23-of-41 passes for 298 yards and 38 runs from the Horned Frogs netted 135 yards.

Greene was 10-for-21 with 142 yards and rushed for a team-high 80 yards on 12 carries.

“The ankle felt 100 percent all week, but something I have to get better at it is getting into a groove earlier and that’s entirely on me,” Greene said.

Donaldson added 61 rushing yards on 22 attempts, while true freshman Jahiem White displayed a burst and rushed five times for 46 yards.

Offensive linemen Wyatt Milum and Tomas Rimac also suffered injuries and had to leave the game, though the extent of the injuries is unknown.

There was not a turnover in the contest, but West Virginia had a legitimate opportunity to intercept several passes.

“We have to work on our hands this bye week. We dropped four interceptions,” Brown said. 

(Postgame “Round of Sound”)

Linebacker Lee Kpogba led all players with 11 tackles. He also added one sack, three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.

Before leaving with the late injury, McLaurin had perhaps his best showing as a Mountaineer by recording seven tackles, two TFLs and a pair of pass breakups.

Burks was injured on a punt coverage play in the second quarter and had to be strapped to a back board and carted off the field.

Lathan also appeared to suffer a significant injury as he was carted off the field in the fourth quarter. The ESPN2 television broadcast opted not to show the replay of Lathan’s injury due to its gruesome nature.

“As excited as I am for our team, I really hurt for Aubrey Burks,” Brown said. “That’s a scary deal. We’re getting good reports on him. He’s going to stay here tonight as precaution. Trey Lathan, who was just coming into his own and playing great, he gets hurt and is going to have to stay and probably have surgery here.”

Greene felt those injuries brought a tight-knit team even closer together in a tough road environment.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Aubrey Burks and Trey,” Greene said. “That’s the bad part about this game. When injuries like this happen, it’s really scary stuff. I’m happy with the way our guys rallied around that. We won the game for them and we’re happy we pulled it off.”

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