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Special Teams Still a Problem for Mountaineers

Unit was helped out by solid defensive play

November 26, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT - Staff Writer ( , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is always talking about being sound on all three sides of the ball.

On Friday night against Pitt in the Backyard Brawl, they did just enough on offense, mostly in the second half, and enjoyed a memorable night of defense, including a team-record 10 sacks, to overcome yet another special teams stinker.

In what has become an almost tragic season of special teams gaffes, things reached what you'd have to believe was their crest Friday night. That the team was able to overcome them and beat Pitt, 21-20, was almost a miracle in itself.

There were punts of 22 and 27 yards by an ineffective Michael Molinari, who wound up being replaced by the guy he replaced, Corey Smith. Molinari took over for Smith in the first place because he was routinely hitting hooks and slices of nearly the same flight path. (It should be noted Smith looked like a guy who wanted his job back, as he averaged 57.2 yards on four punts upon getting his chance to atone against the Panthers).

But it got worse before it got better for the Mountaineers, beginning very early in the game when Jorge Wright was penalized for a rare illegal block by a defensive player on what would have been a missed 38-yard field goal by Kevin Harper.

''He said he slipped,'' Holgorsen said. ''It was a penalty.''

As it was, the Panthers got a first down and later scored on a 1-yard rush by Zach Brown.

Later, the Mountaineers' Ishmael Banks had a bounding punt hit off him, giving Pitt the ball back at the WVU 37 with 2:16 remaining in the second quarter and Pitt leading 14-7. The Panthers wound up tacking on a 30-yard field goal by Hart and a 10-point lead.

In the third quarter, Tavon Austin muffed a return at his own 16. That led to another Harper field goal, this time from 27 yards as the WVU defense held. Pitt went up 20-7.

When it was over, Pitt had 133 return yards on kickoffs and punts. West Virginia had 9. Total.

At that point of the Austin miscue, West Virginia had minus-2 yards rushing on 10 carries, 143 yards passing, and the time of possession favored Pitt 22:31-11.

West Virginia had the ball for just 3:50 of the 15-minute second quarter, which included a two-play, 62-yard drive in which it produced its only score of the first half.

"When things don't go exactly the way you want them to go, you don't give up," Holgorsen said. "Defensively, we just played tremendous. We really got after them. But you can't win the game with one side of the ball."

And then he talked about how all three sides were effective. He said he enjoyed the Backyard Brawl atmosphere, basically shook off the two muffed punts and the early clankers, and was actually talking about how, for the most part, all three phases were a success.

"There were 18 punts in the game," he said. "Obviously, our guys were better than their guys at flipping the field."

The Mountaineers, who have trailed at some point in each game this season except for the Maryland game, wound up with 113 rushing yards and 244 passing yards - a total of 357 yards on 61 plays.

"Give Pittsburgh a lot of credit," Holgorsen said. "Defensively, they did some good things."

The Panthers had 296 yards on 81 snaps, an average of 3.7 yards per play. West Virginia lost the turnover battle, 3-1.

Holgorsen repeated: "I give the defense a whole bunch of credit."

And, perhaps, too much to the special teams.