TAMPA, Fla. (93-7 The FAN/AP) — 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, helping West Virginia (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today, No. 22 AP) clinch a share of the Big East championship with a 30-27 victory over South Florida on Thursday night.
The Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2) pulled even with Louisville in the conference standings and likely will receive the league’s automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series if Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday to create a three-way tie for the title.
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.
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 West Virginia quarterback also led an 11-play, 78-yard drive that Dustin Garrison finished with a 5-yard TD run to make it 20-all with just more than 5 minutes to go.
The Mountaineers, who fell behind 27-20 when JaQuez Jenkins returned an interception 24 yards for USF’s last touchdown, began the winning drive from their own 26 after Najee Goode forced a fumble by Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels.
Daniels returned from a shoulder injury to throw for one touchdown and run for another. Jenkins gave the Bulls their only lead of the game.
Louisville earned its share of the league title 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.
South Florida, wrapping up its second season under coach Skip Holtz, lost seven of eight following a 4-0 start that included a win at Notre Dame that lifted the Bulls into the Top 25 for a four-week stay that ended when the Bulls 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.