It was a game they should have won. It was a game they had to win. And on a sunny afternoon in Texas the West Virginia Mountaineers scratched, clawed and fought themselves to a 37-34 victory on Josh Lambert's 55 yard field goal as time expired, tying Paul Woodside's 30 year old school record.
That doesn't mean it was easy.
Lubbock is never easy for West Virginia. Two years ago a top 5 Mountaineer team rolled into town and was subsequently embarrassed 49-14 by the Texas Tech Red Raiders. That game started a slide that some would tell you WVU is still coming out of. That game in many ways defined the Mountaineers. They got down early, they folded and it all pointed to a mental weakness that would cripple the rest of 2012.
Two years later WVU once again trailed a Texas Tech team that was playing out of its mind and looked nothing like the mistake-riddled club that had lost 8 straight in conference and staggered to a 2-3 record. On the back of perplexing playcalling, a porous first-half defense and a variety of poor decision the West Virginia Mountaineers found themselves trailing 34-20 with 7:32 left to a Texas Tech team that had lost 8 straight conference games.
Here's hoping the next seven and a half minutes define the 2014 West Virginia Mountaineers.
It was a game that showed the best and worst of Dana Holgorsen's offense. First there was the perplexing playcalling of a man who prides himself on being different. Four times on 3rd and long the Mountaineers elected to run the ball - none of those runs going for first downs. His deconstructed Air Raid which seeks to establish the ground game much more than any of it's previous incantations had seemed to leave the land of 'genius' and land right smack dab in the middle of the valley of stubborn.
Yes the strategy seemed appropriate against a Texas Tech squad that gives up 258 yards a game on the ground (124th nationally) and WVU had a pair of 100 yard rushers for the first time since 2008 (Wendell Smallwood - 15 carries for 123 and Rushel Shell - 24 carries for 110) but it never seemed like the offense could get rolling and take control of the game.
But in the fourth quarter we saw the fruit's of Holgorsen's stubbornness. A Texas Tech front that had been pounded all day gave up big runs to a fresh Smallwood who gained 62 total yards in final 3 drives of the game. Rushel Shell charged forward time and time again for difficult yards - none more important that the 1 yard plunge that tied the game with 2:02 left to play. But it was the patented lightning quick passing game of Holgorsen's system that saved the day as Clint Trickett passed for 118 of his 301 yards in the fourth quarter including a quick 26 yard touchdown strike to Kevin White that pulled the 'eers to within a touchdown with nearly 6 minutes left to play. The Mountaineers would drive three times for scores in the final quarter, taking 1:37, 2:37 and :52 seconds.
So maybe what we saw was the full incarnation of what Holgorsen wants to ultimately do. Establish the run game, but deliver the kill shot with the pass. Just like he drew it up, right?
On the defensive side the bend-but-don't break mentality of the 3-3-5 stack was on full display, although it seemed broken for sure after Justin Stockton's 69 yard run on 3rd and long put the Red Raiders ahead by 14 with seven and a half minutes left. But the Mountaineer D would manage a pair of huge stops to give the offense a chance to win and at the end of the day they don't need to shut the other team down - just hold them to a single point less than their team scores.
In a lot of ways it felt like a season-saver for the Mountaineers. The negativity of a collapse in Lubbock would have been difficult to recover from - even more so with the high powered Baylor Bears on deck. The familiar questions of the coaching staff would have crept back in and the defeatist sentiment that has defined the Octobers and Novembers of the last two years would have been looming large.
Josh Lambert's foot changed all that. Now the Mountaineers are 4-2 with a great bead on a bowl berth and a pocketful of positivity as they prepare to face the Bears. WVU stands at 2-1 in a topsy-turvey conference and a lot of things are on the table that would not have been on the table with a loss.
It's a great night to be a Mountaineer wherever we may be.