New punter has breakout day in first game

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va -- Mike Molinari was in middle school the last time he punted in a real game. The last time before Saturday, when he kicked for No. 13 West Virginia.

There were a few punts in a high school all-star game when he got in a rep or two, but really he was a backup in high school.

The wait was worth it.

Molinari, a redshirt freshman, had a breakout performance punting for West Virginia in a 43-16 win against Connecticut in his first start at the position.

Three times Molinari pinned the Huskies inside the 20, once a perfect coffin corner that bolted out of bounds at the 2.

The Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East) head into an off week before playing Oct. 21 at Syracuse.

"All week I was dreaming that I was going to hit those kicks," said Molinari. "You've got to expect you're going to kick great balls. I expected it all week and sure enough, I did."

Molinari, who serves as the holder on Tyler Bitancurt's place-kicks, replaced Corey Smith as the starting punter.

Smith had shanked two short punts of 14 yards each in back-to-back games and averaged just over 38 yards per punt this season, prompting the need to give someone else a try.

Molinari averaged 43 yards on five punts against Connecticut and started with a 46-yarder that drew a roar in the stadium.

"Sometimes you've just got to put guys in game situations and give guys chances and see what they can do," said head coach Dana Holgorsen. "UConn didn't come after it very much. He had some time and the conditions were good and he took advantage of it."

Molinari played running back, safety and kicked field goals at Parkersburg (W.Va) South High.

His bio also lists him as a former high school punter.

Not quite so.

He was the backup, but was never needed.

"I didn't even punt in high school. We had another kid who punted, a big strong running back," said Molinari. "I was a decent punter in high school. It's just, I played a lot of positions, but I knew I wanted that to be my future. When I got up here I wasn't doing the skill stuff, was kicking every day. That helped me with my improvement."

When he arrived at West Virginia he was able to focus on punting, so his increased reps have gone a long way to explain his improvement.

In all, it was a much improved day on special teams for the Mountaineers.

No long kickoff returns were given up, and field position was solid, drawing praise from Holgorsen.

"The thing I'm proud of more than anything is that we made great strides with our special teams,'' he said.

NOTES -- Quarterback Geno Smith completed 27 of 45 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns against Connecticut. Those passing yards are the second-best single game total of his career. They brought his career total to 5,231 and pushed him past Major Harris for sixth place on the all-time passing yard list. ... Stedman Bailey finished Saturday's game with 178 receiving yards on seven catches, a program-record fourth consecutive 100-yard receiving game.



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