Smith-to-Austin combo comes to rescue for West Virginia
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Even on a bad day, No. 8 West Virginia managed to pull out a double-digit win.
The Mountaineers offense sputtered on multiple drives Saturday, was forced to punt seven times, and netted 25 rushing yards against an aggressive Maryland defense that sacked the team's Heisman Trophy candidate twice.
Yet quarterback Geno Smith still delivered, throwing three touchdown passes to wide receiver Tavon Austin as the Mountaineers hung on for a 31-21 win.
It was the biggest test so far this season, with the team's long-awaited Big 12 Conference opener a week away.
"Taking care of the football is what won this game," said coach Dana Holgorsen. "That was the best defense we've faced this year by a long shot."
The offense was rendered one-dimensional as a running game that usually features Shawne Alston (thigh bruise) was severely limited while the offensive line struggled to control the line of scrimmage.
The best evidence of that was this statistic: West Virginia netted 1 yard rushing in the first half, even with the return of highly touted running back Dustin Garrison from a knee injury.
Smith was pressured more than he had been all season, forcing him into a few throws that were far from the near-perfection he displayed in the first two games.
Nevertheless, he completed 30 of 43 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
"He was a bit off," said Holgorsen. "He got hit. He got hit early. They got to him, and that rattled him a little bit. But they're a good team. Defensively, they've shown a bunch of improvement and have seven or eight seniors that have played a lot of football."
Austin had another superb game, catching 13 passes for 179 yards including five in a nine-play, fourth-quarter drive that made it 31-14.
"He stood out statistically, but we've got to have other people making plays other than him," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson of Austin.
Darwin Cook and Doug Rigg combined for the team's first touchdown when Cook blitzed from his safety position and forced Maryland freshman quarterback Perry Hills to fumble. Rigg scooped up the ball and went 51 yards for the score.
It took West Virginia 31 seconds to score on the next drive when Andrew Buie turned a screen pass into a 34-yard gain before Austin took a slant pass for a 44-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Maryland's Stefon Diggs turned a 10-yard screen into a 42-yard touchdown run, and it was 14-7 with 2:21 to go in the first quarter. Then the Terrapins tied the score when Hills finished a 64-yard drive filled with screen passes with a 12-yard toss to Marcus Leak.
Tyler Bitancurt's 37-yard field goal on the next drive was quickly followed by Smith's 24-yard touchdown pass to Austin, giving the Mountaineers a 24-14 lead at halftime.
They did not score in the third quarter for the first time this season.
After a punt on their first possession, Smith was sacked for a 9-yard loss to start the second, and, two plays later, Corey Smith had to punt.
But, in the fourth quarter, Smith connected with Austin again, finding him five times on a nine-play drive that ended with Austin's 34-yard touchdown catch.
"Sometimes, you sputter, and, when you sputter, you've got to be tough enough to make a few plays to win," said Dawson.
"We won. Geno, I don't know statistically what he had today, but he showed a lot of courage out there. He took a lot of shots, kept going, and kept pushing.
"That's all you can ask for."
The defense was more successful than it had been, getting five sacks: Josh Francis had two, and Cook, Pat Miller and Karl Joseph added one apiece as the defense held the Terrapins to 351 yards and three touchdowns.
"One of the things we have to do is do a better job of securing the ball offensively and make sure we cut down on the penalties and the sacks," said Maryland coach Randy Edsall.
"The guys fought hard, but you know the bottom line is we came up a little bit short and we will just keep getting better."
NOTES -- Maryland quarterback Perry Hills, a Central Catholic High School graduate, completed 20 of 29 passes for 305 yards and one interception. ... Austin now owns the Mountaineers record for career receptions with 208, passing Jock Sanders in the West Virginia record books with his 207th on a 3-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
West Virginia again rides Geno Smith's arm to victory.
Jordan Hall runs for 107 yards as No. 16 Ohio State wins.
First Published September 23, 2012 12:00 am