MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) Generating few yards on drive after drive, West Virginia went to some trickery from normally conservative coach Bill Stewart and seized control of its Big East opener.
Geno Smith, Jock Sanders and Noel Devine combined to execute a hook-and-lateral for a short touchdown just before halftime, a play that stuck out in an otherwise dull offensive showing in No. 25 West Virginia’s 20-6 win over the South Florida on Thursday night.
“That’s a play that we carry in a lot of game plans, but we never get it called because it’s so hit and miss,” Smith said. “We felt good about it down there and it turned out it worked for us.”
Stewart’s prediction of a defense-dominated game by both sides came true.
The Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0) made the most out of their limited scoring opportunities while the nation’s seventh-best defense held South Florida (3-3, 0-2) without an offensive touchdown for the second straight game. Quarterback B.J. Daniels found no room to roam and the Bulls were outgained 298-202.
Daniels was sacked four times and his three interceptions gave him 10 this season, surpassing his total for all of 2009.
“We’re putting the ball in danger way too many times,” South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. “We have got to put up more points. Our defense is playing way too well and they deserve better.”
South Florida’s previous low for offense this season was 219 yards in a 13-9 loss to Syracuse last week.
Robert Sands set the stage for the Mountaineers just before halftime, stepping in front of Daniels’ pass to Evan Landi and returning the interception 27 yards to the South Florida 7.
West Virginia called the hook-and-lateral on the short side of the field. Smith threw a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to Sanders. He immediately flipped the ball behind him to Devine, who went around right end from 11 yards out for the score and a 17-3 halftime lead.
“I know I don’t try to show much emotion on the sideline,” Stewart said. “That was a big-time play and it did turn around the momentum in the football game.”
West Virginia ate up clock time in the second half to post its 12th straight home win. Both teams crossed midfield twice in the second half and managed only a field goal apiece.
Last year Daniels went through the Mountaineers for 336 yards of offense in a 30-19 win, but West Virginia had a better plan for him this time.
Daniels ran 14 times for just 4 yards and completed 20 of 30 passes for 119 yards before being replaced late in the game.
“The defense did a very good job at containing us, and we’ve just got to get back to the drawing board,” he said. “We’re not going to throw in the towel and make excuses.”
South Florida was successful in slowing down Devine for the second straight year. Devine led the Mountaineers with 13 carries for 29 yards. His longest run was 13 yards.
Instead, the Mountaineers relied on Smith for an arsenal of mostly short, controlled passes. He completed 13 straight passes spanning both halves and finished 24 of 31 for 219 yards and two scores.
West Virginia forged ahead with an unusually imbalanced approach, throwing on 23 of its 33 first-half plays.
Brad Starks had his fourth TD catch in two games, grabbing a 31-yarder with no defender near him in the first quarter for a 10-0 lead.
After that, there was little movement from either offense. The teams punted on seven straight possessions in the second quarter.
Sanders did a lot of catching with little to show for it. He had 10 receptions for just 31 yards. According to WVU statisticians, that’s the fewest receiving yards in school history for a player with at least 10 catches in a game.
West Virginia’s Keith Tandy caught a tipped pass early in the fourth quarter for his fourth interception in three games. Brantwon Bowser had his first career interception for the Mountaineers.
“This defense is really starting to gel,” said Stewart, who earned his second win over the Bulls in three tries.
The Mountaineers evened the all-time series at 3-3.