By Cam Huffman
MORGANTOWN — The low expectations that had West Virginia picked eighth out of 10 Big 12 teams in the preseason weren’t exactly erased after Saturday’s season opener. But after the first weekend of the college football season, the Mountaineers can say something that many already can’t. They’re still undefeated.
WVU (1-0) overcame a 17-10 halftime deficit and scored 17 unanswered points after the break to hold off Football Championship Subdivision opponent William & Mary at Milan Puskar Stadium for a 24-17 win. In the process, the Mountaineers avoided suffering the same fate as conference foe Kansas State, which was upset by defending FCS champion North Dakota State Friday evening.
“There are plenty of FCS teams out there that are happier right now than William and Mary after beating an FBS team,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “It happens every week. We are fortunate that it didn’t happen to us.
“We’re obviously excited to get out of the game with a victory. Hats off to William & Mary. They were exactly what we thought they were. They were very well coached and didn’t make mistakes. I expect these guys will win some games.”
WVU started on fire with junior Paul Millard under center as the starter in the much-publicized quarterback battle with Clint Trickett.
Millard took his team on an eight-play, 67-yard drive, pushing the tempo to find the end zone in just a little over 2 minutes.
That was the only touchdown the Mountaineers scored in the opening half. Millard sputtered, and two series with Trickett at quarterback both ended in three-and-outs, without a single completed pass.
The Tribe (0-1), meanwhile, took advantage of a couple of big plays to open up a surprising lead. A 40-yard pass from quarterback Michael Graham to Tre McBride led to a 1-yard touchdown strike from Graham to Darnell Laws in the first quarter. A 28-yard pass to McBride in the second quarter led to a Graham touchdown rush and a 14-7 William & Mary lead.
The Tribe tacked on a 29-yard John Carpenter field goal just before halftime, after a Millard fumble gave them the ball at the WVU 34-yard line, and they took a 17-7 lead into the locker room.
“They got two big plays,” said WVU safety Darwin Cook. “We were just hurting ourselves. We weren’t really even down on ourselves, because we knew what we could do.”
The second half was all Mountaineers. WVU, with Millard permanently under center, set the tone with a 15-play, 70-yard scoring drive that ended in a 22-yard Josh Lambert field goal and reduced the deficit to a single score.
The next Mountaineer drive took just three plays, and Millard connected with Ronald Carswell, who beat a Tribe defender, hauled in a pass and sprinted 69-yard to the end zone.
The Tribe, which had only a little more than 100 yards of total offense in the second half, couldn’t get anything going against a re-energized WVU defense, and the Mountaineers pulled in front for the first time since the opening quarter with 3:22 to go in the game when Wendell Smallwood capped off a 50-yard drive — which included only one pass — with a 2-yard touchdown run.
WVU never trailed again and took a knee at the 4-yard line at the end of the game instead of adding another score.
Millard, who appears to have locked down the quarterback battle, finished 19-of-25 with 237 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those completions went to freshman Dakiel Short, who finished with 63 receiving yards.
“He’s pretty good, huh,” said WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “That’s what we’ve been seeing all fall.”
On the ground, Houston transfer Charles Sims rushed for 120 yards on 23 carries, and junior college transfer Dreamius Smith had 46 yards on 12 totes. In total, WVU ran the ball 44 times for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I was disappointed we didn’t get loose (for a big play),” said Holgorsen. “But we ran the ball probably more than I have in the history of my coaching career. I felt like it was the right thing to do, because they were dropping a lot of people. We did a good job of taking care of the football, and we got some big first downs.”
WVU also got a big boost in field position from its punter, Nick O’Toole, who averaged 50.6 yards on five boots.
William & Mary was led by Graham, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown. He did throw one critical pick to Darwin Cook on The Tribe’s final drive. It was the fourth interception of Cook’s career.
Darnell Laws caught eight passes for 45 yards, and McBride gained 108 yards on his three catches.
The Tribe had just 102 yards on the ground on 31 carries.
“Winning is hard,” said WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who has been in the spotlight after taking over that role from Joe DeForest, who was in charge of the Mountaineer defense last year when it produced historic numbers in futility. “And our kids understand that. They don’t give style points. At the end of the year, it’s going to count as a win, and that’s all that really matters. Our kids gained a lot of confidence, and we’ve got to get back into the mindset of playing championship defense.”
The Mountaineers will be back in action next Saturday when they open conference play on the road at Oklahoma.
William & Mary will open its home schedule against Hampton.
“They’re disappointed,” said Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock, who has pulled off upsets against FBS opponents before. “Anytime you work as hard as a football team works and you play a game and you come that close, it’s obviously very disappointing, no matter who you play or where you play.
“These guys are resilient, and they’ll bounce back and learn from this.”
WVU improved to 16-0-1 against William & Mary and is now 86-18-6 in home season openers.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.