MORGANTOWN - Thanks to a blocked field goal, Dana Holgorsen is still in the hunt for what his two predecessors at West Virginia couldn't do in their first seasons as head coach - win a Big East championship.
Rich Rodriguez won at least a share of four conference titles in seven years, but he went 1-6 in league play in his 2001 debut. Bill Stewart went 5-2 and finished second to Cincinnati in 2008.
Holgorsen's first year has been filled with mistakes, thrills and plenty of disappointments. But after a 24-21 victory at Cincinnati on Saturday, West Virginia (7-3 overall, 3-2 Big East) is back in the thick of the conference race with a Nov. 25 showdown looming with Pittsburgh in Morgantown.
Cincinnati’s Deven Drane, rear, breaks up a pass intended for West Virginia’s Ryan Nehlen last Saturday. WVU has a bye this week.
Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1) holds a half-game lead in the league on West Virginia, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
"We didn't mention it going into Big East play when we were quote-unquote supposedly the favorites," Holgorsen said. "You never heard that coming from me or any of our coaches or players.
"The next two weeks trying to get ourselves in position to win the Pitt game is the only thing that's important. All that other stuff will take care of itself if you take care of the games one at a time."
If Eain Smith hadn't blocked Cincinnati's field-goal attempt in the final seconds that would have sent the game into overtime, the Mountaineers might instead be thinking about a season of lost opportunities or what they'll be eating for Thanksgiving.
Smith said he's already put the block in his scrapbook of memories.
"It was great that night and Sunday morning," Smith said. "But it's a new week."
A week ago, Louisville returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in a 38-35 victory against the Mountaineers.
"Yeah, it's ironic based on what happened last week against Louisville," Holgorsen said. "You could pinpoint that one particular play that was a 10-point swing as the reason we lost to Louisville, but it wasn't. From a media perspective, you look at the Cincinnati game and say we won the game based on blocking the kick. Well, that just happened to be the last play."
For now, West Virginia has two weeks to try to fix some lingering issues, including being flagged for a season-high 14 penalties for 95 yards.
The Mountaineers were shut out in the third quarter for the second straight game and managed just seven in the second half.
West Virginia couldn't run the ball against the Big East's top rush defense, being limited to 32 yards on 32 carries. That meant West Virginia was held to its second-lowest offensive output of the season.
"We try to score every time we have the ball," Holgorsen said. "I don't think we forgot how to make adjustments at halftime. I give Cincinnati a lot of credit. They totally dominated the line of scrimmage, which made it hard for us to do anything offensively."
West Virginia's Geno Smith had his typical solid game with 372 passing yards but had just one scoring pass, a 59-yarder in the first quarter to Stedman Bailey, who went past the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Tavon Austin was all over the field against the Bearcats, catching nine passes for 126 yards, averaging nearly 17 yards on three punt returns and 22 yards on three kickoff returns. He also ran the ball once for 6 yards.
Austin now has 907 receiving yards. West Virginia has never had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
Smith needs 111 passing yards to break Marc Bulger's single-season record of 3,607 set in 1998. Smith also is on pace to set school marks for total offense, pass attempts and completions. He's seven TD passes shy of Bulger's record of 31, also set in 1998.
The defense was criticized by Holgorsen a week ago for allowing Louisville's offense to thrive and looked bad at times at Cincinnati against the run, especially early in the game. And in the game's final 2 minutes, Cincinnati drove 56 yards before Smith's blocked field goal.
The defense's shining moment was Julian Miller's recovery of a second-quarter fumble by Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros for a touchdown.
"We didn't start very good," Holgorsen said. "They came out and jumped on us, but we just kept playing. Regardless of what the situation was, we kept playing and ended up making enough plays to win the game."