MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Backs to the wall, the West Virginia defense answered the call.
Oklahoma State marched into Morgantown Saturday armed with a perfect record, a No. 11 ranking, a 45.3-point scoring average and was a three-touchdown favorite to best the Mountaineers and silence the hometown crowd of 57,280 at Milan Puskar Stadium.
But the underdog West Virginia defense stymied quarterback J.W. Walsh and the Cowboys offense with a fumble recovery, a late goal-line stand and two crucial interceptions to steal the 30-21 upset victory.
"Golly, they played well," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said of the defense. "They created turnovers. They stuck people. They made plays in key situations. They set up scores."
When Walsh found receiver Josh Stewart for a 73-yard touchdown on the second drive of the game, the Mountaineers, shut out by Maryland a week earlier, had allowed 44 unanswered points.
The next Oklahoma State drive, though, was the turning point of the game -- the turning point, perhaps, of the season for the Mountaineers.
On second down, two plays after West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett had been intercepted, Walsh threw one way, his receiver darted the other, and the ball fell into the arms of cornerback Ishmael Banks.
Banks, a redshirt junior nicknamed "Icky," secured his first career interception and sprinted 58 yards up the sideline for the tying touchdown, the defense's first return for a touchdown since Dec. 1, 2011.
"On the way over here on the bus," Banks said, "I've got my headphones on and I'm thinking, 'Make a play, make a play, do something to help the team win.' And that's exactly what I did. I made a play."
It was the first answer to a charge defensive coordinator Keith Patterson gave his defense earlier in the week. "Raising the standard," Patterson called it; make a play, then do one better.
"Set up scores or score for our offense" was the challenge, Banks said. "We've been getting three-and-outs, but we've got to do a little more since we're the more experienced side of the ball."
West Virginia's defensive line only managed one sack but spent the afternoon in the backfield knocking Walsh to the turf again and again, focused on "impacting the quarterback," Patterson said.
Walsh's two interceptions and completion percentage of 42.6 were career-worst marks for the sophomore.
"We just try to have the attitude of being tough and nasty," redshirt senior nose tackle Shaq Rowell said.
Clinging to a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter and with Trickett in the locker room with a shoulder injury, the Mountaineers defense had to make a stand.
The Cowboys had a first down just 3 yards from the end zone.
After a 2-yard run and an incomplete pass, Oklahoma State was now just 3 feet from the lead.
That was as close as it would get. On third down, Cowboys running back Jeremy Smith swept wide right and aimed for the pylon, but Dontrill Hyman, a junior-college transfer from Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss., met Smith deep in the backfield and threw him for a 5-yard loss.
Oklahoma State missed the chip-shot field goal. Their backs to the goal line, the defense had prevailed.
Redshirt senior safety Darwin Cook sealed the victory with less than four minutes left when he intercepted Walsh's pass to set up a West Virginia field goal that put the game out of reach.
A loss would have dropped West Virginia to 2-3 and marked the program's worst start since 2003, but the win put the Mountaineers right back on track in the Big 12 race.
"It just shows the character of our kids," Patterson said. "All the credit goes to those young men on the field. They spilled their guts out again, and I couldn't be more proud to be their coach."
Five games in, it has become clear that the defense's early season success is no fluke. West Virginia has 11 takeaways in five games. After allowing 38.1 points per game a year ago, that number is now down to 19.6.
An upset of No. 11 Oklahoma State will only help pad the résumé.
"It's going to give us a pep in our step," Banks added. "A little more swagger knowing that if we play hard, we can play with anybody."wvusports
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published September 30, 2013 4:00 AM