West Virginia rallies for share of Big East title
By FRED GOODALL
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) No. 22 West Virginia did its part to earn a spot in the Bowl Championship Series, clinching a tie for the Big East title by beating South Florida.
Now, the Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2) need some help to make this an even sweeter season under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen.
Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, Pat Miller scored on a 52-yard interception return and Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Mountaineers their first victory in Tampa since 2005 and a portion of the conference title for the second straight year.
"I wasn't thinking about much of anything. I was just trying to stay calm and focused," Bitancurt said. "I've kicked one to win a game as time expired, but never to win a Big East championship."
West Virginia pulled even with Louisville in the conference standings and likely will receive the league's automatic BCS berth if Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday to create a three-way tie for the league title.
Louisville earned its share of the crown by beating USF last week. The Cardinals hold the tiebreaker over West Virginia if the race ends in a two-way tie, but the Mountaineers likely will receive the coveted BCS berth if Cincinnati beats UConn at home to force a three-way deadlock.
Under that scenario, the league's BCS spot goes to the team that's ranked highest in the final BCS rankings. That should work out for West Virginia, the only one of those teams that was ranked this week.
"Cincinnati is a good team. They're well coached. They don't need our words of wisdom to want to win the game and be co-Big East champs as well," Holgorsen said. "I think they'll be playing pretty hard."
USF (5-7, 1-6) finished its season on a three-game losing streak and failed to qualify for a bowl bid for the first time in seven years.
Four of USF's losses came in the closing seconds of games the Bulls easily could have won.
"You can't ask this team to play with any more passion and any more heart," coach Skip Holtz said. "I've had teams in my past with better records. I don't know that I've had a team that has probably taught me more through handling adversity and perseverance and having a positive attitude."
Geno Smith set up Bitancurt's third field goal of the night with a 26-yard completion to Stedman Bailey on fourth-and-10 from the USF 42. The junior from Miami also led an 11-play, 78-yard drive that Dustin Garrison finished with a 5-yard TD run to make it 27-all with just more than 5 minutes to go.
The Mountaineers, who fell behind when JaQuez Jenkins returned one of USF's two interceptions 24 yards for a 27-20 lead, began the winning drive from their own 26 after the Bulls' B.J. Daniels drove his team into field goal range before Najee Goode forced a fumble by the quarterback.
Daniels returned from a shoulder injury to throw for one touchdown and run for another. He scored on a 1-yard sneak 5 minutes into the fourth quarter and finished 21-of-44 passing for 226 yards. Darrell Scott rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries for the Bulls.
Smith completed 23 of 35 passes for 237 yards and was intercepted twice. Garrison finished with 87 yards rushing on 16 attempts.
South Florida, wrapping up its second season under Holtz, lost seven of eight following a 4-0 start that included a win at Notre Dame. That victory lifted the Bulls into the Top 25 for a four-week stay that ended when they dropped their Big East opener. The third losing season in the school's relatively brief football history ended a streak of six consecutive bowl appearances.
USF went 5-6 in 1997 - the year former coach Jim Leavitt began the program from scratch - and again in 2003, the Bulls' first season in Conference USA.
Daniels started for USF after injuring his throwing shoulder against Miami on Nov. 19 and sitting out last week's 34-24 loss to Louisville. West Virginia had 10 sacks - four by tackle Julian Miller - during its win over Pitt, but the Mountaineers were not nearly as effective rushing the passer Thursday night.
Normally a threat to run as well as throw, Daniels only scrambled by necessity. His 20-yard TD pass to Sterling Griffin trimmed a 10-0 deficit to three points in the second quarter, although it took instant replay to get the points on the scoreboard. Griffin initially was ruled out of bounds, but a replay showed the receiver got one foot down in the end zone as he was gaining possession.
The Mountaineers made a number of mistakes that helped the Bulls stay close early.
In addition to settling for a 23-yard field goal after a false start penalty on fourth-and-goal from the USF 1, linebacker Jared Barber dropped a possible interception during the drive that produced USF's first touchdown. Bitancurt missed a first-quarter field goal try that followed a short punt.
Devon Brown fumbled at the end of a 21-yard catch and run early in the third quarter, with USF recovering at its 2-yard line to deny the Mountaineers another scoring opportunity. Smith's only interception, some poor tackling and a pass interference penalty in the end zone led to Maikon Bonani's 20-yard field goal that trimmed USF's deficit to 20-13 late in the third.
West Virginia finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, beating Cincinnati 24-21, Pittsburgh 21-20 and going down to the wire again Thursday night.
"Real simple. For three weeks in a row, we've put ourselves in precarious situations and figured out a way to win the game in the end. Just give the guys a bunch of credit for hanging in there, continuing to play and not caving in," Holgorsen said. "The way we pulled it out is who this team has become. We figure out ways to win."
Updated December 2, 2011