Tavon Austin did all he could do, but he couldn’t play defense.
West Virginia University’s historically poor defense was up to its old tricks Saturday night, giving up 662 yards and six touchdowns, including a 5-yard touchdown pass from Landry Jones to Kenny Stills on a fourth-and-three with 24 seconds remaining, negating a record-setting performance from Austin — who topped the Big 12’s all-time mark with 572 all-purpose yards — in a 50-49 Mountaineer loss to No. 13 Oklahoma.
Jones, who set a school record with 554 passing yards and six touchdowns, hit Stills on a slant with WVU defensive back Ishmael Banks riding his back for the go-ahead score — the one-point difference the result of a Tyler Bitancurt missed extra point on an earlier Mountaineer touchdown.
WVU drove to the OU 49-yard line on its final possession, but with just 2 ticks left on the clock, Geno Smith’s Hail Mary pass was knocked down at the 2-yard line, preserving a Sooner win that broke the hearts of the 50,000-plus Mountaineer fans in attendance.
“They ended up making one more play than we did, which was the difference in the game.” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “I’m proud of our coaches, and I’m proud of our players, who put us in position to win the game. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. We’re going to have to learn from it and move on.”
WVU (5-5, 2-5 Big 12), once 5-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country, has lost five straight for the first time since 1986 and is now in a position where it has to win one of its final two games just to become bowl eligible.
Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1 Big 12) kept alive its shot at a possible Big 12 title — which became more realistic after Kansas State’s loss to Baylor Saturday — or at least an at-large BCS bid, winning on its first-ever trip to Morgantown, after dropping its last two games against the Mountaineers.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team to hold it together the way they did and to come back,” said OU head coach Bob Stoops. “Landry Jones to lead those drives at the end of the game; such great passion, execution up there, throwing strikes, receivers making tough, competitive catches — all of it together. Really, it was just pleasing to come back and win a game away from home.”
After giving up 31 points in the opening half, WVU’s defense buckled down a little in the second half while the offense exploded, finally giving Mountaineer fans a reason to cheer.
Down 38-24 with 11:54 to play in the third quarter, after the Sooners drove 80 yards in five plays on their first possession of the second half, the Mountaineers scored the next 19 points on an Austin run and back-to-back touchdown passes from Smith to Stedman Bailey. Teammates since high school, the WVU duo connected for four scores in the game against an OU defense that had allowed just three passing touchdowns all year coming into Saturday’s showdown.
The Austin run, though, was followed by the missed PAT, and WVU spent the rest of the game trying to make up for that mistake. The Mountaineers tried to pick up 2-point conversions twice later in the game, but both failed, leaving them a point short.
Still, with 2:53 left in the game, the Mountaineers were ahead 49-44, after an electrifying 40-yard Bailey touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone, but OU put the game away with a six-play, 54-yard drive that lasted just 2:29.
The Sooners ended the game with 662 yards of total offense, including 554 through the air. They converted 9 of 15 third down attempts and the one critical fourth-down play.
Two receivers — Jalen Saunders and Damien Williams — had 100-yard receiving games, and Stills caught 10 passes for 91 yards and four scores.
Led by Austin’s showcase night, WVU racked up an eye-popping 778 yards of total offense — the second-most in school history, behind only the 807 it posted against Baylor in its first-ever Big 12 game earlier this year. The bulk came on the ground, where the Mountaineers finished with 458 yards rushing. It was the first time under Holgorsen that the Mountaineers had rushed for more than 150 yards in a game and lost.
Austin, normally a slot receiver for the Mountaineers, got the bulk of the work at running back and made the most of it. He rushed for a school-record 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 21 carries, breaking the old mark of 337 set by Kay-Jay Harris against East Carolina in 2004. He also caught four passes for 82 yards and returned eight kickoffs for 146 yards.
“We haven’t been able to run the ball, so we had to do something,” said Holgorsen, adding that the move is likely permanent after Austin’s play. “Obviously, he goes for 344 yards, it probably should have been done four years ago. He’s a tremendous football player and was the best player on the field.”
Bailey ended the game with 205 receiving yards on 13 catches, while Smith threw for 320 yards and the four touchdowns. He also tossed a pair of interceptions, but set a school record for touchdown passes. He’s now thrown 35, breaking the old record of 31. He was the first quarterback this season to throw for more than 300 yards against Oklahoma.
“I’m obviously disappointed in our defense,” said Stoops. “We haven’t been in a lot of shootouts. Give them credit for some execution. We deserve some of the criticism for not playing as well, but again, they’re a good team, an explosive team.”
WVU, though, will long remember the points it left on the field.
Aside from the missed extra point, and the missed 2-point tries that followed, WVU drove to the OU 2-yard line in the opening quarter before falling a yard short of a first down on a Bailey grab on a third-and-eight and having to settle for a 19-yard Bitancurt field goal.
Down 38-30 in the third quarter, WVU wasn’t willing to settle for the field goal on a fourth-and-one from the OU 14-yard line and instead tried to run Andrew Buie for the first down. He was stuffed at the line, and the Mountaineers came away with nothing.
“They made one more play than we did,” Holgorsen repeated. “The kids played hard. How many losses like this do we have to go through? I don’t know. We’ve got two more games left. Hopefully, we can get back out there and get to work and try to come up with a couple wins. It’s a tough loss, but we have to regroup.”
WVU will have a short week to recover from its second-straight 1-point home loss — the other a 39-38 double-overtime setback at the hands of TCU on Nov. 3. The Mountaineers will be at Iowa State on Friday.
Oklahoma will host Oklahoma State on Saturday.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH
Tavon Austin did all he could do, but he couldn’t play defense.
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