By Mark W. Fought
Senior Staff Writer
MORGANTOWN, WV (9/12/15) – On a mostly cloudy but dry afternoon in Morgantown the West Virginia Mountaineers moved to 2-0 on the 2015 season before 52,899 fans with a 41-17 win over the Flames of Liberty University in the second meeting all-time between the two schools
West Virginia wore white pants, gold jerseys and white helmets during the game; Liberty wore white pants and helmets. It was perhaps the most color of white that WVU and an opponent have ever worn in the same game. WVU’s game captains were Nick Meadows, Josh Lambert and Nick O’Toole.
Liberty won the toss and deferred to the second half. John Lunsford’s opening kick-off was out of the end zone and the Mountaineers’ first offensive possession of the afternoon began from their own 25-yard line with a Smallwood carry for 9 yards, followed by a Skylar Howard scramble for 14 to the WVU 48. Consecutive 5-yard completions to Jovon Durante moved WVU into Flames territory, followed by a swing pass to Rushel Shell for 11 to the 27. Durante’s third reception moved WVU into the Flames’ red zone to the 16. With 2nd and 5 at the 11 Shelton Gibson dropped a perfectly thrown ball from Howard in the end zone. On 3rd and 5 Howard overthrew Durante and the Mountaineers settled for Josh Lambert’s 51st career field goal as a Mountaineer from 28 yards out and a 3-0 lead with 12:23 remaining in the first quarter.
On the Flames’ first possession, on 3rd and 12 Liberty’s senior quarterback Josh Woodrum completed an 18-yard pass to Darrin Peterson for the Flames’ initial first down. On 3rd and 8 Peterson hauled in another Woodrum pass to set up 4th and 1 from midfield but a fumbled pitch to Desmond Rice – who had a clear lane in which to run along the WVU sideline had he not needed to fall on the ball – gave WVU possession at the Flames’ 47-yard line.
After a sack of Howard by Chima Uzowihe, Howard scrambled for 33 yards to the Liberty 18-yard line. Shell then gained 5, followed by another Howard run for 3 to the 9. On 3rd and 2 Smallwood’s second effort gave the Mountaineers a first down at the 8. Two Shell rushes resulted in no gain and Howard subsequently overthrew Shelton Gibson in the end zone, bringing Lambert on for a 25-yard field goal and a 6-0 WVU lead at the 4:21 mark of the opening quarter.
A questionable late tackle by WVU’s Christian Brown on the ensuing Liberty possession gave the Flames a first down at their 45. A beautifully executed screen pass from Woodrum to Peterson gained 18 to the WVU 34 but the Mountaineer defense forced a fourth down as the first quarter ended with WVU in front 6-0.
The first play of the second quarter was a missed 45-yard field goal by Lunsford, who would struggle throughout the game. Howard and West Virginia then went to work. An 11-yard completion to Gibson moved the ball to the 41, followed by a 7-yard run by Howard. On 2nd and 3 from the 48 Howard hit Gibson along the Flames sideline at about the Liberty 40-yard line and the speedy redshirt sophomore outran the opposition to paydirt and a 13-0 WVU lead. The 4-play, 71-yard drive took just 1:15.
Nick O’Toole’s kick-off was out of the end zone and Liberty began its third possession at the 25. On 3rd and 14 from the 21 a neutral zone infraction gave the Flames five yards. That gift was just enough to help Liberty pick up a first down on a shovel pass to the 36. On first down a long pass intended for B. J. Farrow along the WVU sideline was almost picked off by WVU’s Daryl Worley. On 3rd down a questionable pass interference call on Worley gave the Flames a first down at the Liberty 45. Woodrum then hit Donte Shells for a gain of 16 to the WVU 39. Two Flames plays gained a yard and on 3rd down a pass completion to Desmond Wright was stopped at the 36. Lunsford again came on to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which was wide right at the 8:18 mark of the second quarter.
With WVU taking over at the 36, Smallwood gained 6 yards on a sweep, followed by a completion to true freshman Gary Jennings for 11 to the 47-yard line of Liberty. Another completion to Jennings went for 6, followed by a Howard keeper to the 39. On 3rd and 2 Smallwood plunged straight ahead for 4 to the 35. A completion to Daikiel Shorts for 17 moved the ball to the 16. On 3rd and 7 Howard scrambled out of bounds short of the first down marker but a late hit by Liberty’s Dexter Robbins gave WVU first and goal at the 5. On the next play Smallwood fumbled the ball at the goal line but managed to recover the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown with 4:06 remaining before the half and the Mountaineers extended their lead to 20-0.
Another deep O’Toole kick was downed in the end zone and Liberty again started what would be their best first half possession at their own 25. A wide open Peterson hauled in a 21-yard pass from Woodrum to the 46 on Liberty’s first play from scrimmage. Desmond Rice then burrowed ahead for 9 to the WVU 46 and on 3rd and 1 Rice rambled 29 yards to the WVU 16. On 2nd and 7 Liberty was guilty of holding, pushing the ball back to the 21-yard line. A Todd Macon run put the ball on the WVU 14, bringing up 3rd and 8. Woodrum’s pass to Peterson in the corner of the end zone was broken up by Terrell Chestnut and Karl Joseph, making it fourth down. After a WVU time-out Lunsford’s 31-yard field goal was no good – his third miss of the first half – keeping alive WVU’s hopes of a second consecutive shutout with 0:38 remaining.
Not content to run out the clock WVU took over at the 20 and a Smallwood run gained 14. On 2nd down, from the 34, Howard hit Shorts out of bounds for 17 to the Flames’ 48. Another completion to Smallwood gained 7, followed by a short completion to Durante to the 37. With 0:02 left before intermission Lambert’s 54-yard field goal attempt was partially blocked and fell well short of the crossbar and the Mountaineers took a 20-0 lead into the locker room.
For the half Howard, who entered the game ranked 3rd nationally in yards per pass attempt, 4th in yards per completion, 8th in passing yards per game and 12th in passing efficiency, was 14-of-17 for 163 yards and the lone touchdown toss to Gibson. Howard was also the leading rusher for the Mountaineers with 62 yards on 9 carries, followed by Smallwood’s 44 on 7 attempts. Durante led the receiving corps with 5 first half receptions. For the Flames Woodrum was 11-of-17 for 97 yards. Liberty gained just 53 rushing yards in the game’s first 30 minutes. Taking away Rice’s 29-yard ramble the Flames gained just 24 yards on 14 carries – an average of 1.7 yards per carry.
O’Toole’s second half kick-off went out of bounds, giving Liberty the ball at the 35-yard line. The WVU defense quickly forced a three-and-out – the Flames’ first of the day – and K. J. Dillon returned the 46-yard punt 19 yards to the WVU 36. Shell ran for 3, then 4, bringing up 3rd and 2 from the 44. Smallwood then lost 2 and WVU suffered its own first three-and-out of the day. Then, the special teams weapon of Nick O’Toole delivered a gem with a 57-yard punt downed at the 1-yard line, putting Liberty in the shadow of its own goal post, but on 2nd and 8 a Woodrum pass to B. J. Farrow picked up 12 yards to the 15 and the Flames were out of immediate danger. However, the Mountaineer defense held, forcing another Liberty punt that was downed at the WVU 47.
The first play following a time-out, during which the national champion WVU rifle team was honored, was a Howard completion to Shorts for 14 yards to the 39. Howard hit Shorts again for 29 yards on a crossing pattern to the 10. Howard then hit Durante for the touchdown at the 8:11 mark and WVU extended the lead to 27-0. The lightning quick 53-yard drive took just 3 plays and 0:52. Following that drive Howard’s QB rating was a scintillating 208.7 on 17-of-20 passing for 216 yards. With his second touchdown pass Howard had logged his sixth consecutive game with at least two TD tosses.
On the ensuing Liberty reception the Flames moved into Mountaineer territory on a 16-yard completion from Woodrum to Tight End Will Johnson to the WVU 46. Then, Woodrum completed a long pass to Shell for 36 yards along the WVU sideline on a play where Worley got turned around, giving the Flames a first down at the WVU 10-yard line. On 2nd and 7 Todd Macon rambled into the end zone for the first score on the WVU defense in 2015 with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter. The Flames’ touchdown spoiled WVU’s bid to shutout two consecutive opponents for the first time since 1962, when the Mountaineers shut out their first three opponents during an 8-2 season – Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech and Boston University by scores of 26-0, 14-0 and 7-0, respectively.
Following a kick-off return to the 25, after a short run by Smallwood, Howard hit Gibson for 18 yards to the WVU 47. However, on 3rd and 9, Howard overthrew Jordan Thompson, forcing a WVU punt. Again, O’Toole delivered a dandy, dropping the punt out of bounds at the Liberty 3-yard line, where the Mountaineer defense forced another three-and-out. WVU took over at the Liberty 34 after a short 31-yard Flames punt.
Howard scrambled out of bounds for 5, followed by another short QB keeper. Howard then hit Shorts for 19 yards to the 10, followed by a 6-yard completion to Durante to the 4. Howard then faked left, curled right and hit a wide open Elijah Wellman for his third TD pass of the day and WVU went up 34-7 with 32 seconds left in the third quarter.
On the next Flames possession, on 2nd and 7, Liberty’s B. J. Farrow made a terrific one-handed catch for 19 yards to the LU 47. Another completion to Shells along the Flames’ sideline resulted in another first down and a defensive holding penalty tacked on gave Liberty a first down at the 33. The WVU prevent unit then forced a fourth down and Lunsford’s 44-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright, but a delay of game penalty on the Flames gave the senior kicker a second chance from the 49 and he finally connected for a 34-10 score with 12:26 remaining.
Wiiliam Crest took over at quarterback on WVU’s subsequent possession and hit Smallwood for 7 yards and Devonte Mathis for a single yard. Smallwood picked up 2 yards for the first down, but the drive then stalled, forcing another O’Toole punt. From the 40-yard line Woodrum hit Zack Parker for 60 yards and the Flames’ second touchdown, making the score 34-17 with 8:35 left in the game.
After an out-of-the-end zone kick-off Smallwood picked up 14 to the 39. A Crest-to-Smallwood completion gained 8 more, bringing up 3rd and 3 from the 46-yard line. Crest then hit Jacky Marsellus on a wide receiver screen that Marsellus turned into a 23-yard gain down the WVU sideline to the 31. Smallwood subsequently broke free for a gain of 14 yards to the 15. Shell added 5 more on the ground to the 10, then Smallwood picked up 4 more to the 6 and a Smallwood plunge for 2 more put the ball on the 4-yard line. On 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line Smallwood went over the goal line for a 41-17 WVU lead with 3:36 remaining. The 12 play, 75-yard drive would conclude the afternoon’s scoring and West Virginia moved to 2-0 with the victory.
Howard finished the game 21-of-26 for 263 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, with the longest completion the early touchdown to Gibson for 52 yards. Crest was a perfect 6-of-6 for 50 yards. In the running department Smallwood was the leading ground gainer with 88 yards on 15 carries, followed by Shell with 28 on 11 carries. Shorts was the leading receiver with 78 yards on 4 receptions, followed by Durante with 60. Jennings and Smallwood added 28 and 24, respectively, on 4 receptions each. O’Toole averaged 49.7 yards on his 3 punts, two of which were downed within the 5-yard line. Those “pin ‘em deep” punts resulted in 14 points on the subsequent Mountaineer possessions. WVU led in first downs 25-17 and in total yards 485-372. In third downs West Virginia successfully converted 8-of-13 while Liberty was 3-of-12. West Virginia also put points on the board on all 6 of its red zone penetrations.
West Virginia will take a week off before hosting Maryland in two weeks, who lost to Bowling Green earlier in the day 48-27.