By Bob Hertzel
It was back in the 1970s, which was probably the Golden Age of Television Commercials, when the Mennen Co. had a particularly marvelous spot.
A boxer was getting beat up pretty bad and staggers to his corner, where his cornerman reaches out and grabs a bottle of Mennen Skin Bracer and pours some into his hand, then slaps the fighter on both sides of his face.
The fighter turns and looks at his second and says:
“Thanks, I needed that.”
And that is sort of the way it was with the West Virginia Mountaineers on Saturday, who got a slap in the face that they may have needed from Maryland as they survived to take a hard-fought 31-21 victory before 58,504 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium.
That put an end to non-conference play and will send them into Big 12 competition at home next Saturday as an unbeaten team at 3-0 against Baylor.
“It was frustrating,” Coach Dana Holgorsen admitted. “Everything we were doing out there seemed hard. That’s what happens when you get into good games. Maybe we’ve just been spoiled for the last three games and the success we’ve had.”
The three previous games had been blowouts with WVU scoring 70, 69 and 42 points and quarterback Geno Smith standing tall in the pocket, never being sacked, never throwing an interception, really never being challenged at all.
In this game they faced adversity and a team that wasn’t afraid to trade punches in the center of the ring.
This was one of those hit or be hit games, a game that could have gone either way had not Tavon Austin stepped up and saved the day by catching a school record 13 passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
“This is Tavon’s best game,” Holgorsen said. “He played fast, 13 catches and 3 touchdowns is pretty special. His energy on the sidelines was tremendous. He was the one guy we had offensively who played their best game. I can’t say that about the rest of them.”
Austin, along with Smith and a few proud defenders like safety Darwin Cook, who forced two fumbles, and linebacker Doug Rigg, who picked one of them up and raced 51 yards into the end zone with the score that probably made the difference, absolutely saved the day.
See, this game turned out to be ridiculously close when you look at the statistics. Holgorsen called the closest he had ever seen.
Here were the numbers:
• First downs — Maryland 18, WVU 19
• Yards rushing — Maryland 46, WVU 25 (no, this is not a misprint)
• Yards passing — Maryland 305, WVU 338
• Total yards — Maryland 351, WVU 363
• Third down conversion – Maryland 7-14, WVU 7-15
• That is close … and close games aren’t something WVU has been used to playing.
There was one difference, however.
“From a stat line it’s even across the board, but the one thing is we created some turnovers,” Holgorsen said. “They were begging to give us the ball. We had it on the ground five times, but we only got to it twice. We did a good job of knocking it free.
“That’s the one thing [defensive coordinator Joe] DeForest has been preaching since the day he got here. That’s one of the reasons he’s our defensive coordinator.”
Oh, Maryland made some big plays. Their Tavon Austin clone, Stefon Diggs, caught three passes for 113 yards, one of them a 42- and the other a 56-yard touchdown. Diggs, like Austin, is from Maryland and, like Austin, he wears No. 1.
“They told me he was from Maryland but I had never heard of him because I was up here,” Austin said. “I went to him and told him he was a good player but I couldn’t let that young boy outshine me so I had to pick it up.”
As big as Austin’s plays were, it all started with Cook jarring loose the ball from Maryland quarterback Perry Hills on a vicious safety blitz, the ball scooped up by Rigg, who ran it 51 yards for a touchdown.
This was redemption of sorts for in the opener against James Madison he intercepted a tipped pass and ran it 46 yards to the 1 but could not get in. He took a lot of ribbing about that.
“Oh, man, it was bad. Everybody called me slow. The worst was everyone said I got slammed by a quarterback, so first thing I told my teammates was get off my back about the first game now,” he said. “They said I actually looked like I had some speed on that play. I told them that was from my running back days in high school.”
The defense really did save the day. It wound up sacking Hills five times for losses of 56 yards, while also causing those five fumbles.
Cook actually caused not only the touchdown fumble that Rigg recovered but another one that was recovered by Terence Garvin.
“I didn’t know he fumbled that first one. I saw the ball on the ground and was amazing. I said, ‘OK, I’ll have a good game now, I got my blood flowing,” Cook said.
With the sacks and turnovers, one would think this would be a runaway but Smith did not have his best game.
“He was a bit off,” Holgorsen admitted. “He was 30 for 43 for 338 and 3 touchdowns, which is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. But he got hit early. They were pressuring him. They got to him and it rattled him a little bit. He’s not going to give up obviously, so he stood in there and still got the ball off.”
He got it off enough to throw those three TDs to Austin, who now is tied with Chris Henry for second all-time in career touchdown receptions with 22.
So it wasn’t West Virginia at its best but it wasn’t a stinker, either … due to Austin and Rigg and Cook and the sweet smell of Mennen Skin Bracer, to which they will say, “Thanks, I needed that.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.