West Virginia back in thick of Big East race

CINCINNATI -- Eain Smith shot through a gap, reached his right hand up high and felt all ball. Do not let any other West Virginia player tell you he was the one who got the Mountaineers back into the Big East race with one swift, beautiful block.

Smith envisioned his season-changing play as Cincinnati kicker Tony Miliano lined up for the game-tying 31-yard field goal with three seconds left. "I've gotta get the block," Smith thought to himself. "I don't want to go into overtime."

Although the play was designed for Ryan Nehlen to attempt the block, it was Smith who took advantage of a low-line drive kick. When he got it, the entire West Virginia sideline spilled onto the field, hooting and hollering over a 24-21 win Saturday afternoon.

"One word," quarterback Geno Smith said. "Pandemonium."

In the West Virginia locker room afterward, everyone tried to take credit for the block. "Even guys who weren't on the field," coach Dana Holgorsen said.

For good reason. That block helped turn the Big East race into a free-for-all. Cincinnati lost its first Big East game after losing starting quarterback Zach Collaros to an ankle injury in the second quarter. Coach Butch Jones said afterward that Collaros would undergo more testing to determine the extent of the injury.

The No. 23 Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) still control their destiny in the Big East race as the only team with one league loss. But West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) and four others are right behind with two losses each. If Collaros is out for an extended period as anticipated, there are no guarantees that the Bearcats will win out to earn the BCS berth.

That is where West Virginia comes in, of course. The preseason favorites fell out of the Top 25 last week after a dispiriting 38-35 loss to Louisville. It was the second head-scratching league loss of the season for the Mountaineers, who lost to a Syracuse team that can barely get points on the board these days.

When Holgorsen addressed his team last Sunday, he never mentioned X's and O's. He had one message -- play with energy. Play with excitement. Play for each other. He harped on that message during his weekly news conference, when he threatened to bring only 55 players with him on the trip if his players did not pick themselves up and learn how to fight.

From the start against Cincinnati, you could see his message came through. After Cincinnati scored first, the Mountaineers immediately responded and did not get their heads down. When West Virginia put together a terrific goal-line stand, quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey ran onto the field to congratulate their teammates.

On and on it went, teammates lifting each other up through various spurts of adversity throughout the game.

"The energy was great," Bailey said. "It was great all over the sideline, even myself. I found myself running off the sideline a couple of times because I was into the game. Usually we're all quiet and stuff. Anything goes wrong for us, and we're quiet on the sideline; it hurts us. It was pretty good today. We just have to continue with that."

Why did it take so long to play that way?

"I'm not sure," Bailey said. "I wish we could get those losses back, but they're in the books. It's just a wake-up call for us. I'm not going to say we got big-headed. We probably just needed that to wake us up and get us on track."

There were bleak moments in the game for both teams. After Collaros went down, backup quarterback Munchie Legaux was extremely ineffective, going 1-of-5 for minus-5 yards on his first six attempts. But he got going as he got more comfortable, rallying Cincinnati from a 10-point deficit to take a 21-17 lead with 13:20 to go.

West Virginia, inconsistent on offense for most of the game, got its turn next. Smith and his teammates knew exactly what had to be done. Without saying a word to one another, they realized the season was on the line. A loss in this game would give West Virginia three in the Big East and effectively eliminate it from championship contention.

Smith began the decisive 12-play drive at the West Virginia 26, and made two huge third-down conversions: a 13-yard pass to Bailey and a 23-yard pass to Tavon Austin on third-and-15. Shawne Alston capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to put West Virginia up 24-21. Austin and Bailey were particular menaces for the Bearcats' secondary, each getting more than 100 yards in the game.

The Mountaineers tried to ice the game later in the quarter, but Tyler Bitancurt missed a 47-yard field goal. That allowed Legaux one final opportunity to rally the Bearcats to their fourth straight comeback win. He marched the team down to the West Virginia 15 before its drive stalled. Miliano, who made all four of his kicks last week, simply could not connect Saturday.

That sets up for yet another wild, unpredictable finish to Big East play.

"Our goal -- the BCS -- it's not over," Alston said.