By Cam Huffman
West Virginia University’s football regular season ended just as it began — under warm Morgantown temperatures and with plenty of offensive fireworks.
The Mountaineers (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) had a going away party with 51,112 fans at Mountaineer Field on an unusually warm December afternoon, racking up 647 yards of total offense in a 59-10 win over Kansas (1-11, 0-9 Big 12) in the regular season finale for both teams.
WVU will now await its bowl fate, which should be announced today.
“I thought we had a chance to play our best ball on all three sides of the ball in game 12, and I think we did that,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “I’m excited about the way we finished. They obviously had a lot of fun out there, and it was good to see them go out on top.”
For 21 Mountaineer seniors it was the perfect ending to a season that began with such promise after a 69-34 win over Marshall in the season opener and a 5-0 start that propelled WVU to a No. 5 national ranking.
What happened between that fifth win, a 48-45 triumph on the road at then-No. 11 Texas, and Saturday’s finale is what fans will long remember about the 2012 season.
Beginning with a surprising road loss at Texas Tech, WVU lost five straight games, falling to Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, as well as out of the polls, before recovering to finish with wins over Iowa State and Kansas that locked up the school’s 11th straight bowl bid.
“We’re excited about the bowl game,” said Holgorsen. “That’s the true Senior Day, and we’ll be happy with wherever we go. They’re all great bowls.”
But for those Mountaineer fans who won’t make the postseason trip, the regular season ending was almost perfect.
It started with quarterback Geno Smith, who issued a reminder of why he was once considered the overwhelming favorite to end the season holding the Heisman Trophy. The senior from Miami, Fla., began the game with a 45-yard pass over the middle to his former high school teammate Stedman Bailey, and he never let up.
Smith led the Mountaineers to scores on each of their first three possessions, building up a 21-0 lead and erasing any thoughts the visitors may have been entertaining about an upset.
WVU’s all-time passing leader finished the game 23-of-24 passing for 407 yards and three touchdowns. His only incompletion was actually an interception, as he never threw a ball that touched the turf all afternoon.
Smith completed 21 straight passes, a new school record.
“We wanted to do something special for the fans going into the Big 12 this year,” said Smith, who went into the stands to celebrate with the fans during the postgame singing of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “Things didn’t go the way we wanted them to all year, but we didn’t want to hang our heads and let those fans down. We came out and played hard, and I think that represents the state.”
As usual, Smith sent a lot of his passes in the direction of Bailey, who finished the game with 11 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns in what could be his last game at WVU. The junior, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, will make a decision over the next couple of months about whether to come back for one more year in Morgantown or enter the NFL draft.
If Saturday was his last home game, he went out in style.
“We were able to put it all together and have a great game on all three sides of the ball,” said Bailey. “It was a good way to end our regular season.”
Tavon Austin, a semifinalist for that same award and one of the nation’s most prolific all-purpose athletes, also went out with a bang. If Smith reminded fans around the country of why he was once a Heisman candidate, Austin made a statement for why he still should be.
The Maryland native caught four passes for 110 yards and carried the football 12 times for 77 yards and a touchdown, a 1-yard third-quarter run that ended with the Heisman pose.
“I felt a lot of love out there,” said Austin, WVU’s all-time receptions leader, who ranks No. 2 in the country in all-purpose yardage. “Everybody was screaming my name, and it was a lot of fun. That’s something you dream of when you’re a little kid.”
J.D. Woods caught four passes for 83 yards in his final game as a Mountaineer, and Ryan Nehlen caught a pass, although he lost a yard on the reception.
“If I could change anything, I’d get Ryan Nehlen into the end zone,” said Smith. “He deserved that.”
WVU’s dynamic passing game was aided by a running game that has really found its stride in recent weeks and kept KU honest on Saturday.
Andrew Buie ended the contest with 100 rushing yards on 12 carries, and Shawne Alston gained 40 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns on his 10 totes.
The Mountaineers ended the game with 240 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
“Everybody knows the running game is the quarterback’s best friend,” said Smith. “That makes my job so much easier.”
Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest’s much-criticized unit also saved its best for last.
WVU held the Big 12’s second-best rushing offense to 117 yards. James Sims — one of the league’s top backs, who went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, despite missing three games due to a suspension — managed just 47 yards on 11 carries.
The Jayhawks came into the game trying to throw the football against a WVU secondary that ranked last in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision in pass defense. After Dayne Crist completed just one of his first five passes, though, they abandoned that strategy and went back to their recent plan of redshirt-freshman Michael Cummings running option.
“We felt that we were going to come out in the first couple of series and throw drop-back passes, because we knew that they were going to spend time loading up the box against us,” said Kansas head coach Charlie Weis. “We intended to go for a series or two and then go right to the option game.”
Cummings ended the game with 42 yards rushing, but the Mountaineers kept him bottled up for the most part, giving up only one touchdown on an 80-yard drive midway through the second quarter that made the score 21-7.
WVU answered that score with two more touchdowns before the end of the half, and WVU’s defense was able to play without a great deal of pressure the rest of the game.
“They have been improving,” Holgorsen said of the defense. “They are getting better at it. Since that bye week (after the loss to Kansas State), I think we’ve gotten better against some very good offensive teams. They have put up some points, and I understand all that. But they never gave up. They came to work each week looking to get better.”
That improvement will give WVU’s seniors a chance to play one more game.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH
WEST VIRGINIA 59, KANSAS 10
UK (1-11) 0 7 0 3 — 10
WVU (7-5) 14 21 17 7 — 59
WVU: Buie 2 run (Bitancurt kick), 12:14.
WVU: Alston 2 run (Bitancurt kick), 2:08.
WVU: Bailey 8 pass from G.Smith (Bitancurt kick), 11:34.
UK: Sims 1 run (Prolago kick), 7:05.
WVU: Alston 1 run (Bitancurt kick), 3:29.
WVU: Woods 8 pass from G.Smith (Bitancurt kick), :24.
WVU: FG Bitancurt 30, 9:11.
WVU: Bailey 16 pass from G.Smith (Bitancurt kick), 6:02.
WVU: Austin 1 run (Bitancurt kick), 1:31.
UK: FG Prolago 32, 9:01.
WVU: Garrison 26 run (Bitancurt kick), 5:13.
Attendance — 51,112.
First downs 13 32
Rushes-yards 45-157 46-240
Passing 117 407
Comp-Att-Int 7-16-1 23-25-1
Return Yards (-1) 22
Punts-Avg. 6-42.2 1-31.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-0
Penalties-Yards 8-70 3-30
Time of Possession 31:19 28:41
RUSHING — UK: Sims 18-57, Cummings 11-42, Pierson 7-30, Matthews 5-22, Bourbon 1-3, Cox 3-3. WVU: Buie 12-100, Austin 12-77, Alston 10-40, Garrison 4-30, G.Smith 4-5, Team 2-(minus 4), Millard 2-(minus 8).
PASSING — UK: Cummings 6-11-0-76, Crist 1-5-1-41. WVU: G.Smith 23-24-1-407, Millard 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — UK: Mundine 2-10, Pierson 1-42, Turzilli 1-41, Sims 1-13, Pick 1-10, Bourbon 1-1. WVU: Bailey 11-159, Austin 4-110, Woods 4-83, Buie 2-57, Arlia 1-(minus 1), Nehlen 1-(minus 1).