Several bounces of the football had not gone in favor of the West Virginia Mountaineers in 2012, but they finally had one go their way as a late Iowa State fumble into the end zone enabled WVU to preserve a 31-24 victory over the Cyclones.
Until the hit by defensive back Darwin Cook that knocked the ball loose, it looked as if yet another defensive failure would yield a crucial late score. West Virginia had allowed an Iowa State touchdown from 40 yards out in two plays with but 34 seconds left in the first half, a scenario that had played out several times during the season. But this time the defense made the play that secured the win.
Once again, Tavon Austin showed why he is the best playmaker in college football as he took a touch pass in the backfield from Geno Smith and simply outraced the Cyclone defenders for a 75-yard score for the winning touchdown with six minutes remaining. Mountaineer fans also were reminded of how significant the absence of Shawne Alston has been from the lineup, as he returned healthy for the first time since the second game of the season and gave West Virginia a strong inside running game it has lacked. Alston finished with 130 yards on 19 carries.
Although the hard-fought win ended a five-game losing streak, it wasn't as though the Mountaineers still didn't look for ways to lose. This time it was 107 yards in penalties, nearly all of which either stalled West Virginia drives or extended those of the Cyclones. WVU twice was forced to settle for field goals after penalties stalled drives in the scoring zone. An unnecessary hold wiped out an Austin punt return for a touchdown, and two foolish personal fouls kept the last Iowa State drive alive. Playing smart has not been an attribute of this 2012 Mountaineer squad.
But for all the frustration of this inaugural Big 12 season, West Virginia is just two plays-a two-point conversion by TCU on a questionable call and a fourth down TD by Oklahoma -from being 8-3 with a winnable game on deck. Most fans would have considered that a reasonably successful year, and it shows sometimes how little the margin is between success and failure.
What the 2012 season also reflects is how much of a step up in quality of competition was made going from the Big East to the Big 12, perhaps even more than some of us believed. For example, Iowa State finished near the bottom of the Big 12 with a 3-6 league mark, yet probably was as good as Louisville and Cincinnati in the upper echelon of Big East. And there were easily four teams the Mountaineers faced in league play this year that were better than anything the Big East offered in 2011.
This Saturday: Kansas visits Morgantown on Saturday carrying a 20-game conference losing streak. But the Jayhawks have been competitive in several games this season, losing by only six to Oklahoma State, on a last second TD to Texas, and in double overtime at Texas Tech. Allowing a team hungry for a win to hang around could be trouble, so the Mountaineers need to come out strong. This will be the last home game for a group of WVU seniors, including the finale for the remarkable careers of Geno Smith and Tavon Austin. West Virginia 52, Kansas 28.