By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Up-tempo. Upscaled. Uproarious.
The historic first football game of West Virginia's tenure in the Big 12 Conference was packed, as advertised, with outrageous offensive stats, big hits and drama before the Mountaineers closed the books on a 70-63 victory over the Baylor Bears in a matchup of two top-25 college football teams on Saturday afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“Not every Big 12 offense is like this,” cautioned West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “Not every game is going to be like this. It was a situation where both offenses were playing at a pretty high level.”
“Both offenses played well,” he added. “To say that the defenses didn't play well is an understatement. We have to keep improving on what we're doing.”
Baylor coach Art Briles, who worked with Holgorsen at Texas Tech from 2000-2002 on the staff of Mike Leach, said, “We fought hard, but we didn't respond well enough to win the game.”
Geno Smith of West Virginia (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) threw eight touchdown passes and completed 45 of 51 throws for 656 yards. His Baylor (3-1, 0-1) counterpart, Nick Florence, had five touchdown tosses and was 29 for 47 for 581 yards.
Stedman Bailey caught 13 passes for 303 yards and five scores. Little-known senior J.D. Woods had 13 as well. Tavon Austin hauled in a school-record 14 passes for 215 yards and a pair of scores.
Baylor's Terrance Williams out-did them with 17 receptions for 314 yards in a losing cause.
Andrew Buie of West Virginia led all rushers with a net of 74 yards on 20 carries.
The no-huddle offenses dominated defenses that were often completely porous to wideouts running downfield. The Mountaineers took 88 snaps, averaging 9.2 yards per play, and the Bears ran 92 plays for an average of 7.6 yards per attempt.
“We knew we had to match them, and keep on fighting to stay on top,” Bailey said.
Smith completed 14 consecutive passes, all in the second quarter, to eclipse Marc Bulger's 13 straight set in 1999. Smith's eight touchdown throws broke his own school record of six set in last winter's Orange Bowl victory.
Neither team led by more than a touchdown until West Virginia scored three times in the third period to take a 56-35 lead. Even then, Baylor kept coming back – and WVU had to keep chucking the ball downfield.
“Games like that, you can't lose your cool,” said West Virginia running back Dustin Garrison. “You've got to stay focused.”
Smith said, “I hate the suspense, but I love the fact that we always persevere.”
“I want to commend Baylor for playing hard,” Holgorsen said. “They played well offensively and had an opportunity to shut it down three or four times and didn't. That's a tribute to Coach Briles.”
The Bears, ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press college football poll, had their nine-game win streak snapped. Baylor had forced turnovers in their past 16 games, but WVU, ranked ninth by the AP and seventh in the USA Today coaches poll, did not yield the ball once.
Holgorsen said, “We haven't turned the ball over in three games and you're going to win if you do that.”
In the final analysis, it was West Virginia's execution on two plays on its final drive that sealed the victory.
Smith threw a ball to Woods that seemed overthrown, but the 6-foot-1 receiver snagged it with one hand, in front of a defender waiting for a pick. The 13-yard gain on the reception was good for a first down.
A couple of plays later, facing third and one, the offensive line cleared a huge hole for Garrison, who ran for 17 yards – his longest jaunt of the day – and another first down that allowed WVU to run out the clock.
Each side punted twice, once in each half. Baylor was 0-for-2 on field goal tries and West Virginia was 0-for-1.
In the first half alone, the two teams combined for 86 plays and 711 yards. Each team scored five times to create a 35-35 halftime tie.
Baylor got touchdowns from four different players in the first half, while Bailey caught passes of 47, 20 and 2 yards for the Mountaineers' three touchdowns of the second quarter.
The Bears got the ball back with just 29 seconds on the clock before halftime, with West Virginia ahead 35-28. Florence threw deep to Lanear Sampson, who completed a 67-yard catch-and-run to set up the tie as time expired. A video review determined that Florence was not across the line of scrimmage when he unleashed the pass, and the touchdown stood.
Austin scored consecutive touchdowns on passes of 45 and 52 yards to open the third quarter, despite going off the field briefly after an apparent injury. Buie's one-yard plunge gave WVU a 56-35 lead after Tyler Bitancurt's extra point.
Baylor got the next two touchdowns to pull within a touchdown with 14:14 left in the game. Just 19 seconds later on the game clock, Bailey's 87-yard touchdown reception extended West Virginia's lead to 63-49.
The longest scoring drive of the game was 4 minutes, 54 seconds, a 10-play march ending with Bailey's last touchdown catch, a 39-yarder, with 5:55 left in the game.
Florence tossed his fifth touchdown pass to Williams with 3:08 remaining to close the gap again to seven points.
The Mountaineer defense got three sacks of Florence. West Virginia safety Darwin Cook had the game's only interception, on the second play from scrimmage.
But overall, Cook said, “I feel the offense won and the defense lost. But we're all one team. ...”
Across the interview room a few minutes later, West Virginia defensive coordinator Joe DeForest countered, “You've got to measure success differently in this league. … Ultimately, you have to make one more stop than they do, one more play. And that's what we did.”
Mountain-notes: Attendance for the game was listed as 60,012. Many of the fans heeded the school's request to “stripe the stadium” in alternating bands of blue and gold. … It was not a good day for WVU at the video replay console. After Baylor's final play of the first half was confirmed as a touchdown, a third-quarter call of a completed pass and fumble by a Baylor receiver, recovered by the Mountaineers, was overturned and ruled incomplete.
—Contact Tom Bone