By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and his charges face their biggest test Thursday night when the Mountaineers travel to South Florida.
The game is set for an 8 p.m. kickoff and will be televised nationally by ESPN.
The Mountaineers’ season-finale obviously isn’t on as grand a stage as the LSU game September 24.
But the stakes are a whole lot higher.
The LSU game was a spectacle, complete with College GameDay and all the ESPN trimmings. It was an opportunity to shock the nation.
The game at South Florida is an opportunity to win a share of the Big East title and has BCS implications.
WVU can stake a share of the conference title by winning the game.
The Big East scenario looks like this: Louisville, at 5-2, already has a share of the Big East crown. West Virginia can move to 5-2 in the league with a win. Cincinnati, which hosts Connecticut Saturday at noon, can make it a three-way tie with a win in that game.
And that plays right into the BCS scenario.
West Virginia obviously must win Thursday or its BCS berth is done. Then, the Mountaineers must wait for the outcome of the UConn-Cincinnati game.
If Cincinnati wins, that puts West Virginia in a mini-conference with the Bearcats and the Cardinals. The BCS berth would go to the team with the highest BCS rating, which would be West Virginia.
If Cincinnati loses and WVU loses, Louisville, which completed its regular-season last week, would get the nod, based on its 38-35 win over WVU.
If West Virginia loses and Cincinnati wins, the Bearcats would get the berth, by virtue of its 25-16 win over Louisville.
Holgorsen said that he isn’t concerned about any of that, which is what any coach would say.
“We haven’t talked about scenarios with bowl game or any of that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “We strictly talk about what our goal is. We set a goal at the beginning of the year to be Big East champions. We can’t be the sole Big East champion, but we can have a part of it. It can be as much ours as anybody else’s in the conference. That’s all we talk about.”
West Virginia punter Corey Smith, one of the heroes of the Mountaineers’ 21-20 Backyard Brawl win over Pitt Friday, was admittedly worried if he would ever get a shot at punting again.
It wasn’t like he was relegated to forgotten man on the bench, he has been handling kickoffs for the Mountaineers this season.
But he enjoyed the punting chores he had done early in the season, until a rash of shanks forced Holgorsen to make a switch to Michael Molinari during the Bowling Green game Oct. 1.
A senior, Smith got the courage to ask Holgorsen if his punting days were through.
“On Wednesday before the Pitt game he asked me if I’m ever going to let him do it again,” Holgorsen said. “I told him, ‘Yeah, you better be ready. You never know when your time is going to come. You have to go in there and help the team.’ That’s exactly what he did.
“He averaged 58 yards a punt, and they were coming after it. It’s not like he just camped out back there. He had to get that ball out. He got it down field and the coverage units were really good. He earned that; I’m proud of how he hung in there and how he waited for his turn.”
Holgorsen said Monday that either Tavon Austin or Devon Brown would handle punt returns Thursday.
When informed that South Florida has allowed just three return yards all season, he made up his mind.
“We’ll go with Devon Brown then,” he said.
Austin had an outstanding game on offense against Pitt, with 10 catches for 102 yards. In that game he set the all-time season record with 81 receptions.
But special teams was a different story.
He muffed one punt that led to a field goal and Holgorsen said he was at fault when Ismael Banks touched a punt, allowing Pitt to get another field goal.
“What Pitt did, which was pretty smart, was they sky-kicked it,” Holgorsen said. “They didn’t get any depth. They kicked it 30 yards, which means you’ve got to weave through people to get there. He didn’t do a very good job of it the first time. He jumped them. Ismael Banks was in there at the wrong time. That was Tavon’s job to tell him to get away from it, and he didn’t do his job.”