By Mickey Furfari
For The Register-Herald
Finally! It was a struggle, but West Virginia’s defense came up with a do-or-die stop and preserved a 31-24 victory against Iowa State on Friday in Ames, Iowa.
The Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) not only snapped a five-game losing streak — longest since 1986 — but became bowl-eligible with a sixth victory.
It was a well-played game by both Iowa State and West Virginia, which executed a well-balanced offense as it had the previous week in a 50-49 loss to Oklahoma.
That was a heart-breaker, but happily this one wasn’t. You had to go all the way back to Oct. 6 for the last victory, a 48-45 upset of Texas on the road.
Senior Tavon Austin, who had another great game, caught quarterback Geno Smith’s 75-yard touchdown pass to give WVU a 31-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But the Cyclones wouldn’t fold.
They drove toward touchdown territory. Once they got inside the red zone, however, WVU junior safety Darwin Cook forced a fumble with a hard hit.
The loose ball rolled into the end zone and teammate safety Karl Joseph recovered it for a touchback.
The Mountaineer offense then took over possession at its 20 and ran out the clock and the celebration began.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen was happy. “I am proud of the way they rebounded and the way they regrouped,” he said of his relieved players. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities going back to the Texas Tech game, where we could have said ‘enough is enough’ and quit.
“But we hung in there and made plays to win the game.”
Of the game-saving fumble, Joseph told reporters that “Cook made a great hit on the Cyclones’ ball carrier and that the ball popped out” and rolled into the end zone, for a touchback.
And Joseph came charging toward the ball and pounced on it, giving WVU possession to run out the clock.
Senior place kicker Tyler Bitancurt was another tremendous contributor to the triumph. He booted three field goals from 44, 42 and 35 yards. He now has 10 field goals for the season. He also made two extra points, with Austin running for a two-point conversion.
For the 11 games this year so far, the versatile Austin owns 2,573 all-purpose yards. The breakdown is: 521 rushing, 1,149 receiving, and 903 kick- and punt-returns.
Quarterback Geno Smith has completed 327 of 466 passes for 3,597 yards and 37 touchdowns — all WVU career records.
An 11th consecutive bowl would be an all-time WVU record.
That one is expected to be either the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York City or the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif.
Both are held in late December.
But the Mountaineers still have one more regular-season game to play.
It’s this Saturday, Dec. 1, when Kansas (1-10, 0-8) visits Morgantown for a noon kickoff.