MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It took one big turnover.
This time, in West Virginia's favor.
Pat Miller forced a Connecticut fumble in the red zone midway through the third quarter, linebacker Jewone Snow returned it 83 yards to the 12, laboriously chugging up the sideline, and West Virginia's offense took it from there.
The Mountaineers, a year after their most heartbreaking loss came at the hands of Connecticut, blasted the Huskies, 43-16, in West Virginia's Big East Conference opener Saturday afternoon at Mountaineer Field.
No. 16 West Virginia is 5-1, and 1-0 in conference play. Connecticut is 2-4, 0-1.
"I was just trying to score, keep going. By the time I got to the other 30 or 40 it caught up with me," said Snow smiling. "It was a game changer. The momentum completely shifted over to our side. It was a big play."
The Mountaineers had held a 10-9 lead at halftime. Connecticut had shut down West Virginia's running game and disrupted its offensive tempo.
Miller dislodged the ball from quarterback Johnny McEntee as the Huskies were threatening to take the lead. Snow grabbed it and ran for daylight.
After the fumble return, West Virginia scored 23 third-quarter points. The Mountaineers scored two plays later when quarterback Geno Smith connected with Tavon Austin on a 12-yard pass that made it 17-9 with the extra point.
West Virginia's special teams had their best game of the season with the help of new punter Mike Molinari who pinned Connecticut inside its 10 twice.
The defense never yielded a touchdown and finished with five sacks, eclipsing in one game its season total of three.
It was without question West Virginia's best performance on the pass rush this season. McEntee was under pressure all day.
"The defense played fantastic," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "That was a heck of a dominating performance from our defense. The run defense got after the passer and created turnovers."
Connecticut was held to 275 yards of total offense and McEntee completed 21 of 37 passes for 193 yards.
On the next possession after Austin's score following the fumble return, Smith connected with Stedman Bailey on an 84-yard touchdown pass. That upped West Virginia's advantage to 24-9.
Two series after that, the defense forced a safety with Bruce Irvin and Snow getting credit for tackling McEntee in the end zone.
Irvin, who had sacked McEntee earlier for an 8-yard loss, heard the crowd roar his name again after the safety.
"They were dropping back, he was holding the ball longer so it gave us an opportunity to go back and get him," Irvin said. "Every time I hear my name it gives me goosebumps. It gives us confidence. It lets us know we still can sack a quarterback. They're going to come in bunches now."
Brad Starks hauled in a 22-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left in the third quarter to up the margin to 33-9.
In the fourth quarter, Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 43-yard field goal and Bailey scored on a 27-yard reception to make it 43-9.
The Mountaineers only touchdown in the first half came on a 14-yard run by Dustin Garrison with 2:44 left in the second quarter. His run saved an ugly series when West Virginia twice had to pick up first downs on third-and-10 plays.
With the ball back for one last try before the half, West Virginia failed on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 and turned the ball over on downs. From there Connecticut drove 53 yards in 55 seconds to kick a 28-yard field goal and make it 10-9 at halftime.
NOTE -- Holgorsen said he gave the game ball to the family of the late Milan "Mike" Puskar, a longtime benefactor of the program who died Friday of cancer.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1959.