AUSTIN, Texas — Grab any college football fan and tell them that the winner of the West Virginia-Texas contest rushed for more yards and came up with more stops in the red zone. Then ask them to pick the victor.
Undoubtedly, said fans would have picked No. 11 Texas in a landslide. But the eighth-ranked Mountaineers flipped the script in their 48-45 road win Saturday night as Andrew Buie rushed for 207 yards and the defense held tight in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “I’m proud of the way they fought on all three sides of the ball. It was a tremendous team victory.”
That team victory was forged in an unorthodox way. Buie entered the contest with a single-game, career-high of 82 yards — a mark he set last week against Baylor — while averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. But Buie found plenty of gaps in the Texas defense, breaking tackles and showing surprising power for his 180-pound size.
Buie racked up 102 yards and a touchdown by halftime, then sealed the contest by running for 100 yards in the fourth quarter alone. He carried the ball a whopping 31 times, surprising the Longhorns with his effectiveness. In fact, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said after the game that the plan was to make the Mountaineers’ running game — and by proxy, Buie — beat the Longhorns.
He did. That he chipped in another 66 yards receiving, providing a third receiving threat behind usual suspects Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, only topped off a fantastic performance.
“He averaged 6.7 yards per run and that’s phenomenal,” Holgorsen said. “What is surprising for me is to see him carry it 31 times.”
On the other side, the Longhorns were left wondering how they could have lost a game when so many things went right. Texas held Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith to 268 yards passing (though he threw four touchdowns) and actually passed for one more yard than the Mountaineers did. The Longhorns sacked Smith four times. They won the turnover battle. Texas blocked both a punt and a field goal. And Texas held West Virginia, the country’s best team at converting third downs at 61 percent, to 3 for 12 on the pivotal down.
“If you would have told me we would’ve done all those things,” said Texas coach Mack Brown, “I would’ve felt really good.”
The Longhorns felt “really good” as a team when they got a much-needed, big play from the defense in the fourth quarter. Trailing 41-38 and with the Mountaineers holding the ball after Texas turned the ball over on downs, defensive end Alex Okafor struck. Okafor forced his second huge turnover of the game, sacking Smith and smacking out a fumble that defensive tackle Chris Whaley pounced on at the West Virginia 12.
“I thought we’d win,” Brown said. “When we got the game down to (7:37 left) and we forced the fumble, I thought, ‘Here we go again, this has been our story.’ “
Instead, the Longhorns had a nightmare possession. Two runs netted four yards, and on third-and-6 from the 8-yard line, with the play clock winding down, the snap shot past quarterback David Ash’s left shoulder and rolled back 16 yards, where Ash was smothered by West Virginia cornerback Pat Miller.
“That was my fault,” Ash said afterward. “I was letting the play clock play down too low, and I should have caught it. That one is on me.”
Kicker Anthony Fera, seeing his first action since transferring from Penn State, then missed the ensuing 41-yard field goal wide right. A golden opportunity ended with no points.
Still, the Longhorns figured to have a shot, still down just three points with 5:15 remaining, and with West Virginia needing to go out-of-character to try and run out the clock. But Buie slammed the door shut, carrying on seven of the drive’s eight plays and rushing for 64 yards, including a five-yard touchdown.
“[Running the ball] was something we talked about earlier in the week, and there weren’t any tricks either,” Holgorsen said. “We just lined up and ran it right at them.”
The Longhorns drove the length of the field and added a late touchdown, but the Mountaineers recovered the onside kick to clinch the game’s result.
After the game, the fumbled snap and missed field goal were sticking points with the Longhorns, but no more than the five fourth-down conversions the Longhorns allowed on five attempts. All five were on scoring drives, with West Virginia taking advantage of Texas’ inability to get off the field.
“It’s how we play,” Smith said. “We play as a team. We fight as a team. No matter what it takes to win the game, that’s what we’re going to do. Coach did a great job managing the situations. He kept us out there on the field and trusted us to get the first downs.”
The Mountaineers got the first downs, and in turn, got the win. Now, West Virginia finds itself in the driver’s seat working toward a league championship. But Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro said the Longhorns aren’t out of it yet.
“I think the championship team is going to be a one-loss team,” Vaccaro said. “There are such good teams across the board, so I don’t think anyone is going to sweep the conference. We need to keep our head up and keep fighting, and we will rise again.”
Still, Saturday night belonged to the Mountaineers, who went against their nature in pulling out a huge conference road win over the biggest crowd ever to see a game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
“I can’t say enough of how proud I am for these guys to come into this environment,” Holgorsen said. “I’ve never seen this place like that. I’ve been here when it was not loud, but it was loud tonight. And for us to be able to overcome that was something that was pretty cool.”