BLACKSBURG, Va. — With a muffed punt, a fumble, struggles in the red zone and a couple of inopportune penalties over the first three quarters, some of the same mistakes that have plagued West Virginia under coach Neal Brown followed the Mountaineers to Blacksburg, Virginia on Thursday.
But fortunately for WVU, the home team seemed more than willing to bail West Virginia out.
Virginia Tech turned the ball over on downs in the red zone on a pivotal first-half drive and gifted the Mountaineers eight first downs on penalties, and on a night in which the WVU defense largely had its way, it was enough for West Virginia to pull away with a 33-10 victory.
“The drive before the half was big,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “Again, that’s something — the two-minute stuff — that we work a lot. A lot of credit to the O-line because (Virginia Tech) can rush the passer. They gave us time, and then JT and Sam James made a great play there at the end.”
With the win, WVU defended the Black Diamond Trophy after picking up a 27-21 win over Virginia Tech in Morgantown last season and improved to 30-23-1 in the series.
It wasn’t perfect but the Mountaineers were dominant in key areas. WVU piled up a 218-35 advantage in rushing yardage, stuffing nearly everything the Hokies (2-2) attempted on the ground. All told, West Virginia outgained Tech 421-228. WVU also led the first-down battle 32-14, leading to massive advantages in time of possession (38:44-21:16) and offensive plays (76-53).
“We were balanced,” Brown said. “When I say (we) controlled the game, we had the ball for 38 minutes, we ran for over 200 (yards), passed for over 200, and our specialists did a really good job.”
Yet the Hokies hung around until the fourth quarter thanks to three red-zone trips that ended in Casey Legg field goals for West Virginia. After Tech’s William Ross was true on a 44-yarder with 4:19 left in the third quarter, the Hokies loomed within one score at 16-10.
But on the ensuing drive, West Virginia took over at its own 25 and, finally, the Virginia Tech mistakes proved fatal to the Hokies’ hopes. Twice during a nine-play, 75-yard march the Hokies seemed to turn West Virginia away only for penalties to give the Mountaineers new life.
The first came on a misfire from WVU quarterback JT Daniels on fourth-and-5 from the Virginia Tech 39. Hokies senior linebacker Dax Hollifield was called for roughing the passer, giving the Mountaineers a first down at the Tech 24.
Daniels was sacked on the next play, putting West Virginia behind the chains. On third-and-14 from the Virginia Tech 28, Daniels again threw incomplete, but this time an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty was called on Norell Pollard, giving WVU a first down at the 14-yard line. Two plays later, Justin Johnson ran in from 6 yards out, putting WVU up 23-10.
Suddenly in a one-dimensional, must-pass scenario, things got away from Tech quickly. Legg tacked on a field goal after a Hokies three-and-out to make the score 26-10. Then, after another penalty on Tech’s offense, quarterback Grant Wells — a former standout at George Washington High School and a transfer from Marshall — was picked off by WVU’s Jacolby Spells, who raced 27 yards to the end zone.
And the rout was on.
With WVU leading 13-7 at the break thanks to a late 24-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to Sam James with just 11 seconds left in the first half, the teams traded field goals on their first third-quarter possessions. For West Virginia, its three points came on a 25-yard field goal from Legg. Tech’s William Ross answered with a 44-yarder with 4:19 left in the period, making the score 16-10.
Tech’s lone first-half offensive output came on a 28-yard, back-shoulder throw from Wells to Kaleb Smith on the first play of the second quarter, giving the Hokies a 7-3 lead. West Virginia reached Virginia Tech territory on the ensuing drive but Tony Mathis fumbled, giving the Hokies the ball at their own 35.
The Hokies seemed poised to build on the lead, getting into the red zone, but on fourth-and-1, WVU stuffed Wells on a quarterback keeper, giving the Mountaineers the ball back at their own 18.
That set up two pivotal scoring drives inside the final 5:04 of the first half. The first culminated with a 35-yard field goal from Legg and the second on Daniels’ throw to James.
Freshman CJ Donaldson led the Mountaineers with 106 rushing yards on 23 carries with Johnson adding 83 yards on 11 totes. Daniels hit on 20 of 30 passes for 203 yards with Kaden Prather leading the Mountaineers in catches (six) and receiving yards (69).
Wells was held under 50% passing (16 for 35) and finished with 193 yards with a touchdown and a pick.