The Mountaineers have their mojo back.
The West Virginia University football team went a long way toward erasing the memory of its four consecutive Big 12 losses Saturday, as it earned its first-ever home win over Texas, 38-20 over an unpredictable Longhorns squad.
And just how they did it might still be a little bit unrecognizable to Mountaineer fans. Who in the world would have ever thought we’d see a Dana Holgorsen West Virginia team win a game in which it attempted only 12 passes? That the Mountaineers would throw the ball less than a notorious ground-and-pound Texas squad? Or that they could force five turnovers and no one would bat an eye?
With three fumbles recovered and two interceptions, West Virginia made the Longhorns pay for their attacking ambition – and in doing so, swung the outcome of the game.
"The difference today for us, if we don’t have turnovers, I don’t know what the final score is," said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. "They were pounding us. They did that against Oklahoma. We defended against more third-and-shorts than we have in a long time."
West Virginia’s first points came on a scoop-and-score for linebacker Jared Barber, a sweet piece of revenge for the senior who saw his career nearly end due to a severe knee injury suffered last time Texas came to Morgantown.
Barber’s close friend and fellow starting linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski also recorded an interception and a forced fumble, while junior corner Daryl Worley also picked off freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard.
But one of the biggest momentum plays came on special teams. West Virginia’s coverage units flew to the ball all afternoon, and it paid off when junior Nana Kyeremeh forced a fumble on a kickoff after a Daikiel Shorts touchdown made it 28-17 Mountaineers, energizing the team even further.
"I was more excited when we got the strip on the kickoff and Justin Arndt got on the fumble than when I scored," Barber said. "One, because we didn’t have to go back out there, and the offense could go back out. Any time we get a turnover and the ball gets back to the offense it is a win for us."
And if turnovers opened the door, a steady and largely mistake-free performance from the ground-and-pound WVU offense ensured that the Mountaineers got through.
After the Mountaineers ran for 300 total yards last week against Texas Tech, they combined for 257 on the ground Saturday afternoon. Junior Wendell Smallwood became just the second 1,000-yard rusher in Dana Holgorsen’s tenure as WVU coach with three games to play, smashing the Longhorns for 165 yards on 24 carries.
And while quarterback Skyler Howard was picked off on his second pass of the game, he was nearly flawless on the rest of his limited opportunities to air the ball out. Howard finished 10-12 with 122 yards and two perfect touchdown passes – the first a 53-yard bomb hauled in by drop-prone freshman receiver Jovon Durante, and the second an impeccably placed 8-yard fade route to junior Daikiel Shorts.
While Barber relished the chance to punch back against the team he nearly lost his football career against two years ago, Howard, a born-and-raised Texas fan, couldn’t quite hide his excitement over beating the team he grew up cheering for.
"I talked a lot about it just being another game, but now that it’s over with, it’s definitely one that sticks out no matter how much you just want it to be another game," Howard said. "Growing up, my room was painted burnt orange with two Longhorns on it. It means something when you look up and your number is higher than theirs at the end of the game."
At 5-4, West Virginia is back over .500 and has gotten back on track for bowl eligibility. With the remaining dates on their schedule being Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State, there’s no reason it can’t run the table.
If WVU does, it will be because of the new equation of West Virginia Mountaineer football: hard running and aggressive defense.