Phantom Pass Interference Haunts WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There’s no excusing portions of West Virginia’s defensive play.
The Mountaineers had misfits, missed tackles and missed assignments. They also had a handful of missed opportunities.
But the thing that was the most missed was a pass interference call that switched momentum back to Oklahoma State and marked the beginning of the end. With No. 22 West Virginia on the rally – having used a blocked punt and an interception return for a score to get within 30-24 – the defense forced the Cowboys into a third and 11 from midfield early in the fourth quarter.
OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph lofted an underthrown ball down the sideline to receiver Chris Lacy. The wideout tried to spin back for the ball and drew minimal contact from WVU cornerback Hakeem Bailey. The official closest to the play didn’t pull the flag. But one farther up the field called Bailey for pass interference. It was, make no mistake, a poor call and nothing more than phantom interference.
But that ghost was real enough in this instance, and the resulting call haunted the Mountaineers for the remainder of the game. Instead of taking possession with waves of momentum, WVU was slapped with the 15-yard penalty, giving Oklahoma State a fresh set of downs at the 34-yard line. The Cowboys scored seven plays later, zapping the vigor out of the comeback in extending the edge to 37-24.
“It was a one-possession game at that point,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “Then we get them to third down and another PI call. That was big. That shifts momentum of the game. We had everything going our way. We have to learn to play the next play. Then we get them to third and goal and we got two guys to the ball carrier and we missed tackles.”
Whatever had built to that point crumbled from there, OSU scoring on its next two possessions in finishing the game with three consecutive touchdowns before simply running out the clock in the 50-39 decision. There remains a lingering impression that the call looms as far bigger than simply the 15 yards itself. There are precious few opportunities to get Oklahoma State’s offense off the field, and a third and 11 is as good as it gets. Maybe West Virginia’s offense manages to score, maybe it doesn’t. But the defense sure as heck should have been allowed to give it a chance.
Still, there are issues. West Virginia allowed a season-high 50 points, with part of that the residue of playing 90 snaps against arguably the best offense in the nation. It was hurt by a sound passing attack and couldn’t corral the run enough to offset that excellence, giving up 246 yards on the ground – including 142 to freshman J,D. King after Justice Hill was removed from the game early because of a neck injury.
“It’s difficult, especially against an offense as explosive as them,” Gibson said. “It was tough. They made plays; give them credit. We didn’t, and lost the game. They hit fast and scored. We weren’t good on first down. When we were good, they wouldn’t go tempo and we settled down and made some plays in the third quarter. We got some momentum in the third and couldn’t capitalize on it. But it was wasn’t enough.”
Yet the Mountaineers also forced and recovered three fumbles to go with the interception, had the pick six score and limited OSU to one touchdown on seven possessions spanning the second and third quarters. Linebacker David Long played like a man possessed with a whopping seven tackles for loss, and the unit held up effectively on the back end until the cumulative effect of the sheer amount of plays took hold.
“It looks like we need to scrap everything we do and try to figure something else out,” Gibson said. “We gotta get guys healthy and guys playing. It’s not very hard what we do. Obviously everybody else has figured it out but us.”
There are negatives to correct and – despite Gibson’s somber tone afterward – positives to build upon. But looking back at the pass interference and a singular crucial moment, the biggest of questions will be what might have been.