MORGANTOWN — Celebrating homecoming and the retirement of former linebacker Darryl Talley’s number, there certainly was a sense of the past in the air at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, one that permeated the game as well — for bad, for good and, eventually, for worst.
The first half looked to be a carbon copy of a 2019 game played between West Virginia and Texas Tech in Morgantown, a laugher the Red Raiders won 38-17. The second appeared to be heading the way of the 2017 chapter, a game in which the Mountaineers scored the final 29 points to rally to a 46-35 victory over the Red Raiders.
Yet, in the end, the result mirrored that of one in Norman, Oklahoma just a week ago — one that ended with WVU on the wrong side of a late field goal.
Jonathan Garibay booted home a 32-yarder with 18 seconds left to send the Red Raiders to a 23-20 victory, capping off an eight-play, 70-yard drive inside the final 4:31 to thwart off for good the frantic second-half rally bid by the Mountaineers (2-3 overall, 0-2 Big 12). It marked the third win in as many tries for Tech (4-1, 1-1) against current WVU head coach Neal Brown.
It was a head-scratching start as West Virginia fell behind 17-0 at halftime to injury-depleted Tech followed by an encouraging comeback that saw the Mountaineers tie the game at 17 before the end of the third quarter and again at 20 with 4:34 left. But it was all undone in another gut-wrenching conclusion in a season that’s already seen its fair share, and this one was likely the most painful body blow yet.
“First half, inexcusable … I apologize to the fans, pissed on how we played the first half — we weren’t ready to go and the energy level was exceeded by theirs,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “Not good enough. Gave ourselves a hole we struggled to dig out of. I’m proud for how our guys competed in the second half, that’s how we should play at all times.”
Making matters worse was the status and direction of both squads coming into Saturday’s matchup. The Mountaineers were coming off a somewhat impressive performance, especially defensively, in falling 16-13 to the Sooners last week. Texas Tech, meanwhile, was whipped 70-35 by Texas a week ago and entered without starting quarterback Tyler Shough and Big 12-leading receiver Erik Ezukanma, who reportedly did not travel with the team while in concussion protocols.
But from the onset, it would have been easy to be confused as to which team was which. Riding backup quarterback Henry Colombi, who piloted Tech’s 34-27 win over the Mountaineers in Lubbock, Texas last season, the Red Raiders got busy early, outgaining WVU 207-109, running 44 plays to the Mountaineers’ 27 and picking up 7 of 9 third-down conversions in building its 17-0 advantage. Running back SaRoderick Thompson had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in the first quarter, one with 4:27 remaining and a second just moments later with 2:49 showing to put the Red Raiders up 14-0.
Garibay added a 33-yard field goal as time expired in the half to complete the early scoring, and the Mountaineers could muster no answer throughout the opening 30 minutes.
Coming out of the break, West Virginia flipped the script in a hurry, taking the opening possession of the second half and marching 75 yards on seven plays, ending with a 4-yard scoring run by Leddie Brown to make the score 17-7. The Mountaineer defense rode that momentum, forcing three-and-outs on the next two Tech drives while the offense kept scoring. Casey Legg kicked a 36-yard field goal on WVU’s next drive and Jarret Doege found Isaiah Esdale on a 14-yard touchdown reception to tie things at 17 with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
But Colombi came up with a pair of huge difference-making throws in the fourth. On a third-and-4 from the Red Raider 33, he hit Loic Fouonji on a 46-yard pass and catch, eventually leading to a 29-yard field goal from Garibay to give the Red Raiders the lead back at 20-17 with 11:46 left.
WVU responded, but let an opportunity slip past in the red zone on third-and-4 from the Tech 6. Doege, who played well in the second half and finished 25 for 33 for 318 yards and no interceptions, missed on a pass to an open Leddie Brown, who had leaked out into the end zone. With the way momentum was going and considering WVU’s struggles to score touchdowns in the red zone, Neal Brown said not going for it on the ensuing fourth down is a call he’ll think about for some time.
“We had good plays, we should’ve scored a touchdown — probably as pissed about that as anything,” the WVU coach said. “We had two really good runs, got into [third-and-4], we had a good play, missed the throw — maybe it was four downs. You always kind of question yourself after the fact.
“You look back and that’s the one play. You’re down by three, so you’re rolling the dice but the thought goes through your mind.”
After a false-start penalty, Legg was true on a 28-yarder to tie things at 20, but the 4:34 remaining turned out to be entirely too much.
On second-and-6 from the Tech 20, Colombi escaped pressure and underthrew a deep ball that receiver Kaylon Geiger adjusted back to, beating the single coverage of Daryl Porter and giving the Red Raiders a 42-yard gain to the Mountaineer 38. Two ensuing Thompson runs covered 29 yards and all that was left was some clock running, positioning and eventually, celebrating for the Red Raiders.
“I thought we had the chance to get a sack and he got free and — it’s a game that ball bounces funny ways,” Neal Brown said. “That was a bad ball, it was probably 5 yards behind him and he makes a play. Credit to them.”
WVU wideout Winston Wright took a knee at the 9-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Doege hit Sam James on a 29-yard throw to get to the 39 but time expired on the next snap as Doege’s throw sailed out of bounds.
Both Wright (nine catches, 106 yards) and Esdale (six catches, 113 yards) eclipsed 100 yards receiving with Leddie Brown finishing with 57 yards on 17 carries. Geiger led Tech with 82 yards on seven receptions, Thompson added 48 yards rushing on 12 totes and Colombi hit on 23 of 34 passes for 266 yards.