In the wake of what seemed to be West Virginia’s (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) game-winning touchdown Thursday night against Houston (3-3, 1-2 Big 12), the Cougars connected on a Hail Mary touchdown pass to defeat the Mountaineers 41-39 at TDECU Stadium in Houston.
“We didn’t lose the game on the last play of the game,” head coach Neal Brown said. “We had multiple chances to win the game, and we didn’t do it. I’m not very pleased with how we played in two out of the three phases, defensively and on special teams, we did not play good enough. We absolutely did not play good enough. Where we lost the game is discipline.”
Despite being down its starting left side of the offensive line, the WVU offense started strong Thursday night. The Mountaineers marched down the field on a 16-play, 82 yard drive on their first offensive chance of the game that included 66 rushing yards. Houston’s defense tightened inside its own 10-yard line, and the drive was capped with a chip-shot 27-yard field goal from redshirt junior Michael Hayes.
The little momentum WVU did muster on that drive was erased when Houston kick returner Matthew Golden took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to the house for Houston’s first score of the game and a 7-3 lead.
The Mountaineers, however, carried their offensive momentum into their second drive with an eight-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that ended in a five-yard touchdown run by CJ Donaldson (17 carries, 66 yards, one touchdown) courtesy of a block in space by quarterback Garrett Greene.
Neither team scored on the next six drives that followed. Before Houston scored a touchdown with 28 seconds in the half to take a 14-10 lead, both teams combined for just 62 yards.
Before Houston’s first scoring drive, quarterback Donovan Smith (21-for-27, 253 yards, four touchdowns) was 5-for-11 passing. He finished the game on a 16-of-16 consecutive-completions streak with four touchdowns and 222 yards.
“He’s been a good player,” Brown said. “He’s dangerous. [We] knew that coming in.”
Houston was also 0-for-4 on third downs before their first offensive scoring drive of the night. The Cougars successfully completed 3-of-5 third downs the rest of the game.
Still, WVU couldn’t have started the second half any better.
Kick returner Jahiem White took the opening kick back to the 29-yard line, and an extra 15 yards were added after a facemask penalty. After one first down, Greene (20-for-38, 391 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) ripped his most explosive touchdown pass of the season on a 35-yard connection with freshman Traylon Ray off a flea-flicker feed from Donaldson for a 17-14 lead.
Jordan Lesley’s defense responded with its first three-and-out of the night courtesy of a tackle-for-loss by junior Sean Martin on second down.
Less than three minutes of game time later, WVU was in a perfect opportunity to secure a two-score lead.
Following completions of 45 and 10 yards to EJ Horton and Jaylen Anderson, Anderson ran freely once more on a wheel route to the far pylon. Greene hit him in the chest, but Anderson dropped the ball and the ensuing deflection forced an interception by Houston’s Isaiah Hamilton.
“They call that an interception, [but] that’s a fumble,” Brown said.
A would-be touchdown turned into the stimulus for a four-play, 80-yard Houston scoring drive for a 21-17 Houston lead and an ugly 14-point swing.
Greene’s explosive-play streak continued on the next WVU drive when he flipped the field on a 49-yard connection with Devin Carter (five receptions, 116 yards). Seven plays later, Greene punched in a one-yard touchdown run to take a 24-21 lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
But Smith proceeded to dice up a tired and depleted WVU defense on a 66-yard scoring drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown connection between Smith and former Mountaineer Sam Brown for a 28-24 lead.
WVU came out flatter than it had been on the previous drives following the Houston touchdown with its third three-and-out of the night. The Cougars took advantage, and earned a two-score lead on a 21-yard touchdown pass by Smith.
With 7:28 on the clock, Houston led 35-24, but the Mountaineers did not go gently.
Greene marched the Mountaineers down the field with a 17-yard completion to Kole Taylor (five receptions, 62 yards), and a holding penalty on Houston set up WVU in Cougars’ territory. Six plays later, WVU was back within a score of Greene’s second rushing touchdown of the night.
WVU set up for the two-point conversion from the two-yard line, but a false start bumped Greene and co. back to the seven-yard line. Regardless, he found Ray in the back of the end zone to cut Houston’s lead to 35-32 with 3:42 left on the clock.
Brown still had all three timeouts, so WVU was able to stop Houston and leave itself a generous 1:17 worth of game time to tie it with a field goal.
The ensuing kickoff went out of the endzone, and Greene began to chip away. He found Taylor for 17 yards, then Carter for 21. Soon enough, they faced a 4th-and-10 with just over 20 seconds remaining in the game when Greene connected with Hudson Clement up the seam. Clement broke multiple tackles and fought his way to the end zone for a jaw-dropping 50-yard touchdown catch-and-run to take a 35-31 lead with 12 seconds remaining.
After the play, Greene was charged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for removing his helmet on the field of play that set the ensuing kickoff back fifteen yards from its original starting point, which proved incredibly useful for the Cougars.
“The celebration penalty after the last touchdown is kind of a microcosm to me of the game,” Brown said. “We [shouldn’t] get that celebration penalty, which is completely asinine for us to take our helmets off. I don’t understand it. They’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt, they don’t really want to call that, but if you take your helmet off, it’s pretty clear. I don’t understand that, and that gave them the opportunity to get in scoring position.”
Because of the penalty, Houston started its last-ditch effort at its own 43-yard line with seven seconds remaining.
“I have to be more mature than that,” Greene said. “I have to be better than that”
Smith hit Dalton Carnes for a quick, eight-yard reception to set up a chuck-and-duck finale for Smith and the Cougars.
As the clock hit 0:00, Smith lofted a pass from just behind midfield into the cluster of receivers and defensive backs in the end zone.. The ball was tipped and batted around for a split second before Houston receiver Stephon Jonson Jr. corralled it in his arms right inside the goal line.
“To me, this isn’t a deal where I’m heartbroken [because] we lost the game on the last play,” Brown said. “That’s not it. We didn’t play well in two of the three phases.”
The game was over the moment he gained possession.