AMES, Iowa —
A defense can contain a guy like West Virginia’s Tavon Austin for only so long. Iowa State did a good job of that well into the fourth quarter on Friday. Then, in the blink of an eye, Austin was off on a 75-yard touchdown play for the go-ahead score and West Virginia held on for a 31-24 victory to break a five-game losing streak.
In the first game between the two schools, the Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) trailed 24-23 when they took over on their own 25 after Iowa State’s Edwin Arceo kicked a 49-yard field goal.
Geno Smith took the snap in shotgun formation and immediately flicked the ball like a touch pass in basketball to Austin cutting in front of him. Austin turned the corner, quickly hit full speed and easily outran the pursuit down the left sideline.
“He did what he’s done all year,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
“He’s a great football player, and if you ask some of the best players and coaches in the league, they’ll tell you the same thing. He’s special and they’re very fortunate to have him on their roster.”
After Austin ran for a 2-point conversion, Iowa State (6-6, 4-5) drove to the West Virginia 7. But Jeff Woody fumbled into the end zone and Karl Joseph recovered for the Mountaineers, who ran out the clock and finally got out from under their losing streak.
“I think we handled it well,” Smith said. “We had a couple circumstances where the ball didn’t bounce our way, and we would make some bonehead mistakes or not make enough plays to win it in the end. It is pretty much going to be like that week in and week out in this conference. Everyone is even, everyone is good, but everyone can be beaten.”
West Virginia became bowl eligible for the 11th straight season with the victory and could enhance its postseason position with a victory over Kansas at home in its regular-season finale next Saturday. The Mountaineers’ losing streak had been their longest since dropping six in a row in 1986.
Iowa State played its regular-season finale and will await its third bowl bid in Rhoads’ four seasons.
“We came up with enough to win the game,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgersen said. “I’m proud that our guys kept fighting after learning a lot about a new league and learning a lot about coming up on the short end of the stick, which is not fun.”
Both teams put up decent numbers despite raw, blustery conditions. The wind blew at a steady 15 mph out of the northwest and the wind chill was 21 degrees at kickoff.
Smith fell well short of his 336-yard passing average, but still completed 22 of 31 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. He worked against an Iowa State secondary missing injured starters Jansen Watson and Durrell Givens, the national leader in takeaways.
Austin was held to 74 yards rushing in 14 carries after gashing Texas for a school record 344 yards last week. But the power running of 5-foot-11, 235-pound Shawne Alston helped keep the Mountaineers moving.
Alston, who missed four games earlier because of an injury, carried 19 times for a career-best 130 yards and a touchdown and teamed with Austin to help his team play keep-away at the end.
“We hit them with a lot of speed and then when Shawne comes in, he’s running downhill and a lot of people don’t want to tackle him,” Austin said. “That loosens up the defense and helps in the play action, too. It’s a good thing that he is back.”
Austin also had six catches for 99 yards and now has 106 for the season, breaking the school record of 101 he set last year.
Iowa State freshman Sam Richardson, making his first start after throwing four touchdown passes in a relief role at Kansas last week, completed 13 of 31 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns. Often forced out of the pocket, he showed some nimble feet in scrambling for 119 yards in 18 carries.
Neither quarterback was intercepted and despite the frigid conditions, there were no fumbles until Woody’s near the end.
The West Virginia defense also had reason to celebrate. It was the first time the Mountaineers held a Big 12 opponent to fewer than 39 points.
“It feels good, like a confidence booster,” said defensive back Pat Miller, who broke up a pass in the end zone on Iowa State’s final possession. “We are excited about that as a defense.”
With Iowa State leading 21-20, a holding penalty negated Austin’s 68-yard touchdown on a punt return. The Mountaineers ending up settling for a field goal, Tyler Bitancurt coaxing through a 35-yarder that nicked the left upright for a 23-21 lead with 9:35 left. Bitancurt had missed a 46-yard attempt in the first quarter when the ball hit the left upright and bounced back onto the field.
Iowa State had taken its first lead of the game at 21-20 when Richardson hit Quenton Brundage in stride for a 35-yard touchdown with 4:56 left in the third quarter. They hooked up six plays after the Mountaineers went up 20-14 on Bitancurt’s second field goal of the game, a 44-yarder.
West Virginia chipped away at the Iowa State defense on a time-consuming drive that stalled after a holding penalty at the Cyclones’ 33. Cleyon Laing’s sack of Smith on third down forced the field goal.
After West Virginia managed only a 3-0 lead with the wind at its back in the first quarter, Smith took the Mountaineers on two snappy touchdown drives against the wind in the second period.
He completed passes of 27 and 23 yards to Steadman Bailey before Alston wedged into the end zone from a yard out to make it 10-0. The next time Smith and his teammates got the ball, he finished a 70-yard, eight-play drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Bailey, who beat Givens’ replacement, Gage Shaeffer, on a square out.
But Iowa State and Richardson answered both scores.
Richardson found Jerome Tiller in the back left corner of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown to cut the lead 10-7. Then, taking over at the Iowa State 29 with just 1:32 left in the half, Richardson executed the 2-minute offense to perfection. He converted a third-and-10 with an 18-yard pass to Jarvis West and scrambled for 21 yards on fourth-and-6 from the West Virginia 39.
On the next play, Richardson hit Josh Lenz, who made a shoe-top catch for an 18-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left in the half, drawing the Cyclones to 17-14.
“It’s important to get back on track,” Austin said. “The defense stepped up a lot and we were just able to make plays down the stretch.”