By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This is a story no self-respecting sports journalist ever thought he would write, just as it is a story no sports fan ever believed he would read, not out of the most important game of the season, maybe even the best game of this season or, for that matter, any West Virginia University season.
Certainly not out of the Backyard Brawl, a spine-tingling, come-from-behind thriller than ended with the Mountaineers on top, 21-20, over Pittsburgh for the third straight season. Not out of a game that kept WVU’s rapidly declining BCS hopes alive. Not out of a game in which the Mountaineers had to come from 14-0 down to win.
Certainly not in a game when the defense would record a stunning 10 sacks after having come into the game with only 16 in the first 10 games and not in a game where four of those sacks would belong to defensive tackle Julian Miller on his birthday night.
Yet we are going to make a statement now that you have never heard before because, to be quite honest, it almost surely has never been said.
So here goes: West Virginia made its comeback, kept its BCS bowl bid alive, won the Backyard Brawl because of a punt.
This takes some explaining if you weren’t in attendance, but if you were among the 60,932 in Milan Puskar Stadium, you know exactly what happened.
WVU was down 14-0 early in the second quarter, Pitt having just scored a touchdown after a 27-yard Michael Molinari punt when Dana Holgorsen told Corey Smith to get ready to punt.
When time to punt came, Smith ran on the field, and the crowd became electric, having booed Molinari for his previous efforts. It was a loud cheer, but seemed like a whisper moments later in comparison to the way it came alive on the 57-yard punt he got off.
The game changed on that punt alone.
“He was my MVP,” quarterback Geno Smith said after Corey Smith punted the ball four times for an average of 57.2 yards.
“I like to think I facilitated (turning the game around),” Smith, the transfer from Alabama, said.
This is the same Smith who had the punting job earlier in the year and was so inconsistent that he lost it to Molinari.
Instead of giving up or sulking, Smith stayed after it, encouraged Molinari, a man with whom he has developed an strong bond.
“We are roommates and teammates,” Smith said. “We have a great relationship. We joke around. I try to help him out. If I see something, I try to tell him. We both went through the same thing. Every kicker goes through it. It’s almost like a rite of passage. It’s how you respond to it.”
He had heard it.
“Anything negative anyone said, I used it for motivation,” he said.
This time he was the motivator. With the crowd roaring, the defense that had struggled until that moment came on and had a three-and-out, and the offense took over and struck swiftly, Geno Smith connecting with Stedman Bailey on a 63-yard pass for a score.
The game had changed, the Mountaineers went in at halftime feeling they had a chance.
True, they trailed, 17-7, and had ended the half with consecutive sacks, but they made adjustments at the half and turned to their running game to get them going.
Then they made some changes in the offensive line that had been dismal, putting in not only 335-pound Quinton Spain at right guard but Curtis Feigt at tackle for his first action since he played a couple of plays against Norfolk State.
The second half was a game of attrition, Corey Smith punting WVU into field position, the defense stifling the Pitt offense, holding it to just 30 rushing yards after it had rushed for 129 in the first half and 50 passing yards.
WVU came out and rushed down the field with Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston to a score on its first possession of the second half, Alston going in from 8 yards out to make it 20-14.
But that was how it stayed as Pitt could do nothing and the WVU offense never could establish itself, although it was making progress with Smith rolling out and throwing behind that revamped offensive line.
Finally, in the middle of the fourth quarter, WVU put a drive together, this time through the air with Tavon Austin on the receiving end of most of Smith’s passes. The Mountaineers moved form their own 17 to the Pitt 24 but were looking at a fourth-and-6 situation.
Timeout was called. They could have gone for a field goal that would have brought them to within three.
“We talked about it,” Holgorsen said, “but we just felt we needed to roll the dice and score. It was one of those calls that goes either way.”
Holgorsen called a pass play that went to Austin.
“We’d had it third-and-1, and I made a mistake,” Geno Smith said. “I could have checked out of it but I didn’t.”
The result was a sack to set up that fourth-and-6.
“Tavon was man-to-man, and he’s awful tough to cover that way,” Smith said.
The gain was nine for a first down and not long after that Alston burst in from the 1 and when Tyler Bitancurt kicked the extra point the Mountaineers led for the first time, a lead they would hold the rest of the way but not without the savage defense ... and Corey Smith.
On WVU’s final possession Smith was asked to punt one last time from the WVU 14, getting off a 60-yard punt that pushed the Panthers back and set up the game’s final play when Bruce Irvin sacked Tino Sunseri, the 10th sack, knocking the ball loose.
It was picked up by big offensive lineman Ryan Schlieper, who had to run 70 yards for a touchdown to win as the clock ran out. He only ran 10 yards before going down, and the game was over.
Next Thursday WVU plays at South Florida. To have a chance at the BCS bid, they must win while Cincinnati wins today and next week.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.