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Slow starts, predictable plays doom West Virginia

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Even during their five-game winning streak, West Virginia players and coaches sounded alarms at the team's notorious slow starts. Eventually, they said, that would catch up to them.

The bill came due Saturday night against Cincinnati, as the Mountaineers took their delayed reactions to the extreme. They gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff, fell behind 20-7 in the first half and only rallied to tie the score with a near-miraculous 13-point outburst in the final 71 seconds.

Fans who had left Milan-Puskar Stadium with six minutes to go in regulation were rushing back to their seats, while students in the upper corners dashed down for a better view. Pat McAfee's 52-yard field goal as the horn sounded set off a wild celebration on the field.

But there was still an overtime to play, and slow starts there can't be overcome. The Mountaineers settled for a field goal, Cincinnati got a touchdown and that was that.

Now what's what for West Virginia? At 6-3 and 3-1 in the Big East, it will now need some help to defend its conference championship. But if Cincinnati loses one of its final three conference games and the Mountaineers win out, they'll be the champs again.

For that to happen, though, the coaching staff needs to figure out why the offense takes so long to get going. Playing without senior starting center Mike Dent on Saturday certainly did no favors. Still, the offense went back to being terribly predictable most of the game, and the Mountaineers stubbornly tried to run on downs when Cincinnati stacked the box with eight or nine defenders, something the passing game was supposed to fix this season.

West Virginia still relies too much on Pat White to get everything done with his feet in crucial situations, and the Bearcats were ready for him this night. The I-formation that had worked so well in previous games was rarely used, and the Jarrett Brown short-yardage package has disappeared, possibly because Brown is more injured than we know.

The defense pitched a second-half shutout for the fourth straight game and for the fifth time in six weeks. It allowed just one offensive touchdown in regulation and held Cincinnati to just one first down and 46 total yards in the second half.

"The defense was outstanding," head coach Bill Stewart said, before adding, "it's tough to win that way."

It's tough to win when you're constantly spotting opponents leads and your offense waits too long to click in. Stewart's postgame comments mostly focused on how proud he was of his team's rally and of the fans who stuck around until the end. But if the Mountaineers don't eliminate the constant need for those comebacks, they won't be coming back to a BCS game this season.