It was a tale of two halves.
In most instances, it’s a bit of a cliché, not to mention misused, but in the case of No. 19 West Virginia and its battle with Norfolk State Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, it certainly fits.
The first half was a bumbling mess, where time and time again the Mountaineers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and trailed the FCS Spartans 12-10. It had all the makings of Appy State-Michigan a few years ago.
The second half, the Mountaineers scored on all seven of their possessions and ended up with what was expected all along, a 55-12 drubbing of Norfolk State.
“Obviously, I’m not pleased with first half, but I was pleased with the second half,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who showed no signs that he was pleased about anything. “We are a young football team and inexperienced. I don’t know if we’re trying too hard or if it was a coaching error. Either way, I’m proud of the way we came out in the second half. We got a lot of good snaps, and hopefully, it will make us a better team.”
Things certainly turned in the second half and turned fast.
Showing more bounce in their step, the Mountaineers started scoring at will, with five straight TDs and scores on all seven of their possessions, with the exception of the kneel-down in the final minute.
“We called the same stuff (we called in the first half),” Holgorsen said. “I can assure you it was nothing schematically.”
First, Vernard Roberts scored his second career touchdown with a 3-yard run just 1:09 into the second half. Then quarterback Geno Smith, held to 104 yards passing in the first half, fired a 3-yard TD dart to Tavon Austin 3:39 later.
That TD was set up by true freshman Dustin Garrison, who had a 36-yard catch and a 13-yard run on back-to-back plays to set up Austin’s TD.
Then Garrison got in on the act, scoring on a 1-yard run, something WVU could not do on six straight plays in the first half.
Garrison’s first career TD made it 31-12.
“(Running backs) coach (Robert) Gillespie told me that the passing play was coming to me, and he needed me to step up,” said Garrison, who had three receptions for 51 yards and three carries for 19 yards. “Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m going to do it. But it felt good to get in the end zone.”
The scoring parade didn’t stop there.
Smith would fire a 12-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Urban and a 39-yard TD to Ivan McCartney, as he tied a career-best with four TDs in a game.
All told, Smith was 20 of 34 for a career-best 371 yards.
Like the game itself, it was a tale of two halves for Smith, who was 12 of 16 for 267 yards and three TDs in the second half.
“It was frustrating,” Smith said of the first half. “I think the second half was a better representation of how we can play. I don’t think we took them lightly. They came out and made some plays.”
Tavon Austin, who caught six passes for 82 yards and a score, did.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” Austin said. “We talked about not overlooking them, but I think our play in the first half proved that we did.”
Tyler Bitancurt, who missed a field goal in the first half, had his second of the game in the fourth quarter before Smith gave way to true freshman Paul Millard.
All Millard did was keep the scoring streak alive, firing a 30-yard touchdown to Brad Starks with 3:38 remaining to make it 55-12.
The 55 points is the first time WVU broke the 50-point barrier since scoring 66 against UConn on Nov. 24, 2007, in Rich Rodriguez’s next-to-last game.
The 452 yards passing was the most by a WVU team since 1998.
“I think we can play like we played in the second half all the time,” said McCartney, who had four catches for 79 yards. “Once we get rolling, there is really no stopping the show.”
Early on, everything went Norfolk State’s way. In fact, the Spartans owned the first quarter, much to the dismay of the 51,911 on hand.
Their second play from scrimmage resulted in a 56-yard pass to Xavier Boyce from Nico Flores, who rotated in and out with starting QB Chris Walley.
Even when penalties took Norfolk from first-and-goal at the 8 to fourth-and-23 — and a 40-yard field goal was nullified, — the Spartans went to their long kicker Everett Goldberg, who nailed a 50-yarder to go up 3-0.
When the Spartans completely botched an onside kick, giving the Mountaineers the ball at the Norfolk State 26, Bitancurt missed a 35-yard field goal.
On their second possession, Walley appeared sacked but shuffled the ball to Takeem Hedgeman for 11 yards and a first down. Norfolk would punt on that possession, but the punt would roll until resting at the 6.
The punchless Mountaineers went three-and-out.
Later, Tavon Austin would return a punt 64 yards to the Norfolk State 12. The result was nothing, as the Mountaineers turned the ball over on downs.
Their first three series resulted in a missed field goal, a punt and giving the ball up on downs, and Norfolk had a whopping 179-19 advantage in yards after the first quarter.
Ryan Estep added a 39-yard goal early in the second to put Norfolk State ahead 6-0.
Bitancurt had a 17-yard field goal to make it 6-3, but that resulted in one of the more puzzling series Holgorsen has seen.
The Mountaineers had six straight shots at scoring from the 1-yard line. And couldn’t do it. Four passes and two runs came up empty.
“Flat-out embarrassing,” Holgorsen said. “It’s embarrassing. I don’t have an answer for you. If you want to say it’s the schemes, say it’s the schemes, but it’s the same stuff we’ve always done.”
Devon Brown’s 18-yard TD pass from Smith made it 10-6, but Ryan Estep nailed a pair of field goals in the final 4:22 of the half to make it 12-10.
“The thing I’m really proud of is we stopped a West Virginia team seven times inside the 5-yard line,” said Norfolk coach Pete Adrian, a 1970 WVU graduate. “If our kids continue to play like they did in the first half, we are going to win a lot of football games.”
One thing Adrian wasn’t pleased with was the Spartans’ 19 penalties for 177 yards, a record for a WVU opponent.
“Don’t even go there,” he said. “I’ve been coaching 43 years, and I think we had 120 (yards) in the red zone. If we are that stupid as players, then that’s the way it is. I’ll have to watch the film, but the officials are saying they did their job. We have to stop that if we are doing that.”
West Virginia (2-0) will be at Maryland at noon Saturday, the first road game for Holgorsen.
Mountaineers wear down Spartans en route to 55-12 win
It was a tale of two halves.
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