September 19, 2008

West Virginia faces tough road after another loss

Colorado 17, West Virginia 14, OT: Box score | Recap

BOULDER, Colo. Country roads, take me home.

West Virginians love to sing that song, especially after the Mountaineers post another victory.

But after Thursday night's 17-14 overtime loss to Colorado, some West Virginians might start talking about how those roads lead out of town, too and some might already be grumbling that new coach Bill Stewart should hit the road.

The Mountaineers rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit, but couldn't make big plays when they needed them. A missed field goal in overtime opened the way for Colorado to finish off the game, and Aric Goodman did that with a 25-yard field goal.

That surely left WVU fans bitterly disappointed and might have some wondering whether Stewart was the right choice to replace the departed Rich Rodriguez. Hey, the Mountaineers lost just twice last season and headed into this season as a national-title contender. Instead, they're 1-2 and already out of the title picture.

"It's tough, especially for those of us who have been in the program a few years," West Virginia safety Quinton Andrews said. "We aren't used to losing."

How times have changed.

Less than a year ago, West Virginia kicked around Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Thursday night the Mountaineers were kicking themselves for failing to make key plays against Colorado, which is improving but still doesn't figure to challenge Missouri or Kansas in the Big 12 North.

WVU entered the season ranked No. 8. The Mountaineers will fall out of the top 25 next week. How did it come to this?

COLORADO 17, W. VIRGINIA 14, OT
WHAT HAPPENED
Colorado's Aric Goodman booted a 25-yard game-winning field goal in overtime to lift the Buffaloes to the upset. Colorado jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two Cody Hawkins touchdown passes in the first quarter. But WVU came back with two touchdown runs by Pat White that forced overtime. WVU had the ball first in overtime, but senior Pat McAfee clanked a short field-goal attempt off the left goal post.
STAR OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Freshman running back Rodney Stewart rushed for 166 yards, the second-highest output by a freshman in Colorado history. He ran for eight first downs. Stewart was overshadowed in the Buffs' recruiting class by uber-recruit Darrell Scott, but he easily has outperformed Scott thus far.
STAR DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Colorado linebacker Jeff Smart had a team-high 12 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He dropped Jock Sanders for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 in overtime, which forced the Mountaineers into their errant field-goal attempt.
TURNING POINT
The Mountaineers could have taken the lead in overtime, but McAfee missed a 23-yarder. That left Colorado only needing a field goal to win, and after one CU first down, Goodman converted his short kick on a third down.
KEY INJURIES
West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas was down for several minutes after tackling Colorado fullback Maurice Cantrell on the second play of the game. West Virginia's entire team left the sideline and assembled about 5 to 10 yards away from where Thomas was being treated.
ETC.
The name "Eddie," written in script on a black background that stretched from the 23- to the 28-yard lines, was added to the Folsom Field turf in tribute to former Colorado coach and athletic director Eddie Crowder. Crowder died Sept. 9 from leukemia. West Virginia had minus-7 yards passing in the first half. Colorado tight end Riar Greer played for the first time this season after missing two games recovering from arthroscopic surgery. Cornerback Jimmy Smith also saw his first action after sitting out the first two games with back spasms. White rushed for 148 yards and Noel Devine had 133. That marked the first time an opposing running back had reached the 100-yard mark at Folsom Field since 2004.
Well, the Mountaineers' "improved" passing attack managed just 43 yards, and they committed penalties at critical junctures, lost a fumble that became a Colorado touchdown and converted only three times on 13 third-down conversions.

Yet, they still could have won and perhaps should have won. Midway through the fourth quarter and with a first down at Colorado's 38, West Virginia quarterback Pat White threw a lateral to Bradley Starks, who looked downfield and saw a wide-open Jock Sanders.

But Starks was under pressure and threw way short. A golden scoring opportunity was gone. Then, penalties on the next two plays killed the drive.

"We've got the guy wide open and the kid underthrew the ball," Stewart lamented. "Maybe we could've scored. But maybes are not going to get it done. Getting it done gets it done. We didn't get it done."

The folks back home might question the play-calling on West Virginia's final possession in regulation. The Mountaineers didn't challenge Colorado's patchwork secondary, which entered the game ranked 91st in the country, downfield in the final two minutes. And some might question the final play in overtime, when the 5-foot-8, 174-pound Sanders was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 at the 4.

But Stewart wasn't questioning himself.

"I don't second-guess myself," he said. "I don't want anybody second-guessing me. I wouldn't change a thing."

The loss doesn't change that West Virginia still should be a contender for the title in what appears to be a watered-down Big East. While the Mountaineers allowed two early touchdown passes by Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins, the defense tightened and Hawkins passed for only 74 yards in the final three quarters.

Stewart lauded that defensive rebound and the running game, which produced 311 yards and touchdown runs of 6 and 39 yards by White. In fact, he sounded more encouraged than discouraged in raving about how proud he was of his team.

He also pointed out that a poor start doesn't guarantee a poor season. That's correct, especially if the Mountaineers ditch the notion of passing more a stated preseason goal and instead rely on the running game that has served them so well in the past. You know, when Rodriguez was coach.

"The rest of the season will define our character and allow us to build on it and find out what type of team we have," Andrews said.

Auburn still awaits on the schedule. So do Big East rivals Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville and USF. And there's also a chance to get revenge on Pittsburgh for that costly upset of a year ago.

"We have a chance to have a tremendous year if we grow," Stewart said. "Our juniors and seniors will hold everyone together. Those guys in that locker room have hurt hearts. They don't feel good, I don't feel good."

You can bet a bunch of West Virginians, who have grown accustomed to being in the national championship picture, don't feel good, either. And if any more losses follow, they'll all feel a lot worse.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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