MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- That was some terrific comeback win West Virginia had against Rutgers last night.
Down by three points late, the Mountaineers -- playing without injured quarterback Patrick White -- tied the score on a Pat McAfee 30-yard field goal with 53 seconds left, then won in triple overtime, 41-39, on backup quarterback Jarrett Brown's 22-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Myles and Brown's 2-point conversion pass to wide receiver Dorrell Jalloh.
There's no doubt the loss was terribly hurtful to Rutgers, more painful even than the 80-7 licking it took here just five years ago. This defeat cost The State University of New Jersey a share of the Big East Conference championship and a trip to a Bowl Championship Series game.
It's hard to say, though, that the win was equally meaningful for West Virginia. Certainly, it didn't change the bottom line.
This West Virginia season will be remembered as an enormous disappointment.
"Are we to the point now where if we're not in a BCS bowl that it's a bad year at West Virginia?" Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez asked last week, in a state near disbelief.
This year, yes.
Yes, because West Virginia was coming off its third consecutive Big East championship and a Sugar Bowl victory against Georgia.
Yes, because it returned 15 starters.
Yes, because it played a lightweight non-conference schedule and the usual soft touches in the Big East, still a second-rate league.
And yes, because its preseason goal was to win the national championship.
Those Mountaineers ought to have some fine time at the Gator Bowl or Sun Bowl.
Hey, if you can't beat South Florida at home late in the season in a game that means just about everything, you don't deserve better.
"I thought we had the capability of winning 'em all," Rodriguez said last night. "It's disappointing that we didn't. But to win 10 games two years back-to-back, that's pretty special. You wish you had a couple back, but so do a lot of other teams."
We probably shouldn't be surprised West Virginia came up short. Its defense isn't very good. It proved that again last night when it couldn't hold a 20-10 third-quarter lead. What was surprising was that the West Virginia defense made a play at the end. Cornerback Vaughn Rivers batted away quarterback Mike Teel's 2-point conversion pass for running back Ray Rice.
Too often this season, the West Virginia offense had to be just about perfect for the Mountaineers to win even against decent competition. It wasn't in a 44-34 loss at Louisville Nov. 2; star running back Steve Slaton lost two fumbles. It wasn't even close in the 24-19 home loss to South Florida a week ago; White and Slaton each lost killer fumbles and were held to a combined 60 rushing yards. It was just barely good enough last night as Slaton ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns and Brown -- a redshirt freshman -- ran for a 40-yard score.
But what's most troubling about West Virginia is how undisciplined its players are. No, we're not talking about the honorable way former Mountaineers Chris Henry and Adam "Pac-Man" Jones are representing the university now that they're in the NFL and seemingly getting arrested every other day. We're talking about all the penalties the West Virginia team takes.
Going into last night, the Mountaineers ranked last in the Big East and 116th out of 119 Division I-A schools in penalty yards per game. This continued a rotten trend under Rodriguez. His teams finished 64th, 116th and 101st out of 117 teams the previous three seasons.
Things got almost comical in the third quarter last night. On first down after a Rutgers kickoff, Brown was called for delay of game. Tackle Ryan Stanchek then was called for holding on a Brown run. To complete the hat trick, tackle Jake Figner was called for a false start. Just like that, first-and-10 at the West Virginia 25 turned into first-and-30 at the 5.
Shouldn't Rodriguez be able to demand better from his players? Or do you think maybe he needs to do a better job of recruiting players who are going to be accountable?
That's if Rodriguez stays at West Virginia.
Wide-spread speculation here has him taking the Alabama job if it's offered. He went on state-wide radio Friday night to deny any interest in the position. He refused to take questions about it after the game.
This is all we know for sure:
West Virginia won't ever compete for the national championship until someone gets more discipline in the program.
The Mountaineers will be back to take another crack at it next season -- presumably with Rodriguez -- and will be among the favorites to win the Big East, which isn't necessarily saying much. Slaton and White are back for one more season, which is enough to strike fear in any team West Virginia plays.
But that thought doesn't ease the sting of this season in the slightest.
The Mountaineers had a wonderful opportunity.
They blew it.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1525.