MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – The game was all but over.
West Virginia led TCU 24-6 when the Horned Frogs took possession of the ball on their own 23-yard line with 6:42 to play on Saturday. Stuffed for much of the day, they then managed a drive, buoyed by a broken-coverage pass of 52 yards, to the WVU 20. While there was still a faint heartbeat of hope for those clad in purple and white, even a touchdown and a two-point conversion would have left the visitors 10 points shy of a tie, and less than four minutes in which to execute a comeback.
It would have been understandable – maybe even excusable – had West Virginia let down a bit. The enthusiasm and energy which it had displayed throughout the game on defense could have been spent. Thoughts could have turned to clock management when the offense got the ball back.
Except, that didn’t happen.
From my position in the southwest quadrant of the field, I had a front row view of the way in which the entire team – coaches, players and support staff–- treated that last meaningful TCU possession. The intensity was off the charts. Coaches were getting defensive signals in quickly and exhorting the players, who were also calling out encouragement to each other. Staffers waved towels and yelled, patting players on the helmet as they came off the field and adding to the support. If you didn’t know the score, you would think WVU led by four and had to hold in order to win.
You know what happened next. After the Frogs scratched out a first down in the red zone, Tykee Smith dropped into coverage some five yards off the line of scrimmage, hidden by the left side of the TCU offensive line. He picked off TCU quarterback Max Duggan’s pass, returning it 42 yards to remove any remaining doubt about the outcome.
The story here, though, isn’t the pick – although it did cap an outstanding day for Smith, who blew up TCU ballcarriers and pass catchers with patriot missile-like detonations. Instead, it was about the way that West Virginia played that series. It didn’t play like the game was over. It didn’t rest on the laurels it had earned in the first 55 minutes. Instead, it remained invested at a maximum level.
Perhaps some of it was due to a desire to keep TCU out of the end zone to preserve a touchdownless day, which is always a goal. But in the moment, there was more to it than that. You could feel it.
That energy and fight, without question, is the basis of Neal Brown’s program. And I’m sure it contributed, in some manner, to his postgame statement in which he noted:
“It matters how you play. When end results aren’t always what you want, we can find solace in understanding that what’s really important is the effort and physicality that you play with,” said WVU’s head coach. “I thought what we put on tape today was West Virginia football. Individually and collectively, I thought our guys laid it on the line. I thought the coaches put them in a really good position to be successful.”
While Brown was speaking of the game as a whole, West Virginia’s performance on the series in question could easily be summed up by his statement. WVU allowed a big play, certainly a result it didn’t want. But it continued to scrap, playing with the effort and physicality its head coach touted. That has historically been the pathway to success for Mountaineer teams, and it is for this one too.
There’s also no doubt that the team has bought in to this approach. That’s no mean feat in this most draining of seasons. WVU was coming to the end of a streak of five consecutive games – an achievement in itself in just getting on the field – and that had to have the emotional tank nearing empty. Still, the players responded. At one point, Darius Stills was exhorting backup nose tackle Jordan Jefferson prior to his entry into the game, challenging him to match the levels that those on the field had produced. Teammates swarmed each other after big plays, even as coaches were hustling to provide more coaching points. In all, it was an impressive display.
Of course, this isn’t a guarantee for wins. West Virginia still has to play well, win one-one one battles, and outduel teams that are just as talented in order to make its mark in the Big 12. It has two regular season games left with the top two teams in the league. But with this sort of sustained effort and intensity, the Mountaineers are going to have a chance in theose games, and whatever bowl game awaits.