West Virginia: Bad finish follows fast start

Interceptions cost Mountaineers in second half against talented Tigers

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Early on, this certainly looked like it was going to be one, big Dixieland delight for West Virginia.

Then it all evaporated into that humid Alabama air.

And it wasn't hard to figure out where it went wrong.

The Mountaineers traveled to the Deep South last night and tried to earn a terrific win for the program, instead, West Virginia (2-1) jumped to an early lead and quite literally turned it over, losing for the first time this season, a 41-30 defeat at Auburn (3-0) in front of 87,451 largely-partisan Tigers fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The most depressing part of this loss?

They had a 14-0 lead 4:41 into the game and a 21-10 advantage after the first quarter.

But when quarterback Jarrett Brown throws four interceptions -- the final one returned for a touchdown at the tail end of the game -- and turns the ball over another time on a fumble, well, there's your Auburn comeback.

"Nobody put their heads down," Auburn defensive lineman Jake Ricks said of fighting back. "And we pushed through it."

Auburn certainly did -- and the Tigers were aided by a misfiring Mountaineers passing game that had been so sharp over the first few weeks.

Asked if Brown tried to force a few things, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said, "Yeah, I do, I do."

And, again, it all looked so promising at the start.

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One of Auburn's biggest traditions never happened.

Because of the lightning that delayed the game by 1 hour, 3 minutes, the pregame ritual where an eagle soars from a perch inside the stadium and lands at midfield was cancelled.

No matter, a healthy substitute was ready.

The West Virginia offense flew high in the early going.

On the game's third play, Brown made something out of nothing, evading a rusher and turning a broken play into a home run ball to Bradley Starks, a 58-yarder to the Auburn 1.

From there, Noel Devine punched it in to make it 7-0.

After an Auburn punt on the next series, Devine ran away from everyone, going 71 yards to advance the Mountaineers to a 14-0 lead only 3:57 into the game.

There he stood, the smallest guy on the field in West Virginia's biggest game of the season to date, and he had 90 yards and two scores before the first quarter was complete.

But this was Auburn.

On its home field.

At night.

In front of a sellout crowd.

You didn't think the Tigers were going to go away, did you?

Auburn sliced it to 14-10 on a field goal and then a 16-yard touchdown catch by Darvin Adams.

But West Virginia jabbed right back, scoring on a 6-yard, neat, little middle screen from Brown to Jock Sanders to go ahead, 21-10.

The first 15 minutes were as good, offensively, as any of those Mountaineers fans nestled into Section 36 in the deep corner could have ever envisioned. West Virginia gained 219 yards in the first quarter, balancing it masterfully with 120 on the ground and 99 off Brown's right arm.

It all fell apart soon thereafter when Auburn cut the Mountaineers' lead to 21-20 with 1:34 left before halftime when a run-heavy drive was capped by a 4-yard Adams touchdown catch.

Devine -- who ran for 128 yards -- scored his third touchdown of the game in the third, a 12-yard run, but kicker Tyler Bitencurt missed the extra point, leaving it at 27-20.

Auburn answered to make it 27-27 on an 82-yard scoring catch from Todd to Mario Fannin that started as a quick screen and ended with Fannin running by everyone.

After a Bitencurt 28-yard field goal, Brown threw a costly interception on a screen to Devine.

The Tigers transitioned the turnover into points -- and a lead -- quickly when Todd hit Adams from 17 yards to make it 34-30.

The next Brown interception -- his third of the second half -- put a lid on things when Craig Stevens picked it off and ran 15 yards for a touchdown to make it 41-30 with 3:41 left.

"This game will help the Mountaineer football team down the road," Stewart said. "It didn't help us tonight."

No, it did not. The miscues in the passing game served to help Auburn more than anything.

"We just had guys in the right place at the right time," Ricks said. "I caught one [interception] and I was just in the right place. We were able to put some good pressure on the quarterback."

There was no question all that pressure got to Brown.

NOTES -- Neither linebacker Reed Williams (foot) nor defensive lineman Scooter Berry (shoulder) played. ... Auburn's win snapped a West Virginia five-game win streak against Southeastern Conference schools. ... Backup quarterback Geno Smith played six snaps in the late stages, throwing an interception of his own, when Brown was shaken up. Brown slightly injured his left shoulder being tackled and is expected to be fine.

Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com .


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