By Cam Huffman
West Virginia’s defensive coaches came in to Saturday afternoon’s meeting with Maryland preaching turnovers. The goal was three, and that’s exactly what the Mountaineers found.
They needed every one of them.
The No. 8 Mountaineers (3-0) scored off an early fumble recovery and then stopped two fourth-quarter Maryland scoring drives — with another recovery and an interception — to hold on for a 31-21 win over the Terrapins (2-2) that had a lot more to do with defense than WVU’s normally potent offense.
“In all my years of coaching, I’ve never seen a stat line as even as this,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “It was pretty much even across the board. The one exception is turnovers, and we got a couple of turnovers, obviously.”
After doing his best robot impression the first two weeks, throwing nine touchdowns and just nine incompletions, WVU’s Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback, Geno Smith, actually looked human. He threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns, but against an almost constant Terrapin blitz, he struggled at times, missing on 13 incompletions and going to the turf on sacks twice after not being sacked through the first two games.
“They blitzed the crap out of us and mixed up the coverages,” said Smith. “We expect teams to throw whatever they can at us, but they did a great job and I had to force some throws. But we overcame adversity and didn’t turn it over.”
Maryland’s freshman quarterback looked more like an award winner. Perry Hills, who played his high school football just up Interstate 79 from Morgantown at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School, completed 20 of 29 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns in this third start. He was thrust into action this year when returning starter C.J. Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury before the opener.
“When you get around Perry, and you see his demeanor and his competitiveness and his heart and his passion and his ability to be a team guy, you just know a guy like that is going to rebound from setbacks,” said Maryland head coach Randy Edsall, who is now 0-2 against the Mountaineers with the Terrapins and 1-8 overall, including his time at UConn. “He is just a tough guy that wants to do well. I thought he went out and, for the most part, did a good job of executing the game plan.”
The other freshman star — Stefon Diggs, who was compared throughout the week to WVU’s Tavon Austin — proved the comparison had some merit. He caught three passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns, while also making his presence felt on kickoff and punt returns. Maryland racked up 351 total yards, 305 through the air.
But the real Austin didn’t take the afternoon off, either.
The Maryland native, who always seems to be ready for the Terps, caught 13 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns, becoming WVU’s all-time leader in pass receptions, passing Jock Sanders, and tying the single-game receptions record, set by teammate Stedman Bailey last week against James Madison.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Smith of Austin. “He got some good matchups and took advantage of them. He’s from Maryland, and he always wants to put it to them.”
For the first time since late in the 2011 regular season, though, the story for WVU was its defense. The new defensive coaching staff, brought in when Jeff Casteel and much of his staff left for Arizona, has said from the beginning that turnovers are more important than any other statistic, and that proved to be true Saturday.
WVU’s first takeaway came with 7:14 left to play in the opening quarter when safety Darwin Cook did his best Troy Polamalu impersonation, coming after Hills on a late blitz and surging through the middle of the Maryland offensive line untouched. The Terp quarterback never had time to react, and Cook’s big hit forced the football loose, where an opportunistic Doug Rigg was there to scoop it up.
Fifty-one yards later, Rigg was in the end zone, and WVU held a 7-0 lead.
“I saw it bouncing around, and my first thought was, ‘please don’t miss it,’” said Rigg of the play, the exact reverse of the 99-yard fumble return against Clemson in the Orange Bowl when Rigg forced the fumble and Cook scooped and scored. “As soon as I got it, there was no way I was getting caught. I think that gave us some momentum and gave our offense a kick-start, too.”
WVU extended that lead to 14-0 on a 44-yard touchdown pass to Austin, but Maryland didn’t go away, responding with two touchdown passes of its own, tying the game at 14-all as the rain appropriately began to fall on Mountaineer Field and WVU’s early season party.
A 37-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal, his first of the season, put WVU back in front and Smith found Austin for the second time in the end zone just before the end of the half to give the Mountaineers a 24-14 lead going into the locker room.
That was the score early in the fourth quarter as Maryland was driving to pull within one score.
A pass completion from Hills to Marcus Leak had the Terps deep in WVU territory, but Cook again got his hands on the football, stripping it away. This time, Terence Garvin fell on the loose pigskin, ending another Maryland threat.
The Terps still had a chance after Smith’s third touchdown pass to Austin — this one beating a blitz and covering 34 yards over the top — put WVU ahead 31-14. Maryland scored on a 56-yard pass from Hills to Diggs to get back within 10, but its final prayer went unanswered when Bridgeport native Wes Tonkery intercepted Hills with a little more than four minutes left on the clock to put the game on ice.
It was WVU’s seventh straight win over the Terrapins.
“The first three games, we didn’t reach our goal (of three turnovers),” said defensive coordinator Joe DeForest. “This time, we obviously did, and it was huge. Overall, I thought our kids played well. We executed the game plan.”
The defensive effort was a critical boost with a one-dimensional WVU offense spinning its tires. With Shawne Alston sidelined most of the game with a thigh bruise, WVU managed just 25 yards on the ground, forcing Smith and his receivers to win the game through the air. It was the first game WVU has won since beating USF in 2010 without scoring a rushing touchdown.
WVU is likely to see much more blitz next Saturday when Baylor (3-0) comes to town for the Mountaineers’ Big 12 opener.
That contest is scheduled for a noon kickoff.
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No. 8 WEST VIRGINIA 31, MARYLAND 21
UM (2-2) 7 7 0 7 — 21
WVU (3-0) 14 10 0 7 — 31
WVU: Rigg 51 fumble return (Bitancurt kick), 7:14.
WVU: Austin 44 pass from G. Smith (Bitancurt kick), 4:24.
UM: Diggs 42 pass from Hills (Craddock kick), 1:54.
UM: Leak 12 pass from Hills (Craddock kick), 12:16.
WVU: FG Bitancurt 37, 7:40.
WVU: Austin 24 pass from G. Smith (Bitancurt kick), :52.
WVU: Austin 34 pass from G. Smith (Bitancurt kick), 8:18.
UM: Diggs 56 pass from Hills (Craddock kick), 7:25.
A — 58,504.
First downs 18 19
Rushes-yards 35-46 25-25
Passing 305 338
Comp-Att-Int 20-30-1 30-43-0
Return Yards 25 23
Punts-Avg. 6-45.8 7-44.6
Fumbles-Lost 5-2 0-0
Penalties-Yards 5-31 6-59
Time of Possession 31:14 28:46
RUSHING — UM: B. Ross 20-52, Reid 4-20, Burns 1-17, W. Brown 2-3, Hills 8-(minus 46). WVU: Buie 14-33, Austin 2-4, Thompson 1-3, Garrison 2-1, G. Smith 6-(minus 16).
PASSING — UM: Hills 20-29-1-305, Team 0-1-0-0. WVU: G. Smith 30-43-0-338.
RECEIVING — UM: Leak 5-69, Furstenburg 4-65, Pickett 4-27, Diggs 3-113, Dorsey 3-31, B. Ross 1-0. WVU: Austin 13-179, Bailey 6-55, Woods 5-44, Buie 3-45, Thompson 2-10, McCartney 1-5.