The West Virginia Mountaineers are finally bowl eligible. The Mountaineers held on in Ames, Iowa to top the Iowa State Cyclones, 31-24, thanks to a late ISU fumble and some heroics from their all-purpose bundle of fireworks, Tavon Austin.
Two months ago, WVU was Mountaineering the national rankings all the way up to the Top Five. Then, five consecutive losses sunk the boys in gold and blue into the depths of the Big 12 Conference.
On Friday, the heartbreak finally ended for West Virginia, which improved to 6-5 with the win, potentially earning the squad a bowl berth at season's end.
Here are some lessons we can take away from WVU's win over Iowa State:
After five excruciating weeks, West Virginia fans can now breathe a sigh of relief, because the Mountaineers at 6-5 are finally bowl eligible.
It shouldn't have taken this long, but on November 23, WVU finally did it.
Thanks to an untimely fumble from Iowa State and some customary heroics from Tavon Austin, the Mountaineers pulled out a win in Ames.
Early word is that West Virginia may be headed to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
An Iowa State beat writer tweeted this right before kickoff:
Just spoke with a Holiday Bowl rep. Said winner of the ISU-West Virginia game will be on their short list. Loser will likely be removed.—Bobby La Gesse (@BobbyLaGesse) November 23, 2012
I'm finished with dancing around this topic.
He's No. 1 for WVU, No. 1 in your hearts and No. 1 in all of college football.
The senior had been having a relatively slow day and Iowa State had just booted a field goal to take a one-point lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Austin caught it deep, milled around for a second and then faked taking it out before kneeling down in the end zone.
At that second, it was obvious that the Baltimore native was ready to make something happen.
On the very next play, he changed the game, taking a jet sweep around the edge 75 yards for a touchdown.
The Cyclone defense had all eyes on Austin all game long. He had been battling with ISU defensive star A.J. Klein for four straight quarters to the point where the All-Big 12 linebacker just shadowed him wherever he went.
Austin was ready to break the game open, and he did, showing that when he wants, he can do anything on a football field.
He finished with 261 all-purpose yards, slightly above his average of 232 per game.
He has been WVU's best player all year long, and there is no one in college football who has the ability to change a game like he does.
He still isn't at 100-percent health, but he was still the baddest dude on the field Friday—exactly in line with his personal mindset.
WVU's senior back led the game in carries (19), rushing yards (130) and scored the game's only rushing touchdown. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and the only player with a higher average was Iowa State's punter Kirby Van Der Kamp, who had one, 12-yard carry.
The Hampton, Virginia native also tied the ISU QB Sam Richardson with the game's longest rush of 21 yards.
Also, 10 of his 19 rushes ended in a first down or a touchdown for West Virginia.
WVU switched from the 236-pound Alston to the 171-pound Austin in the backfield all evening, and ISU just couldn't keep up, as the Mountaineers averaged 5.8 yards per rush.
It was a cold, windy day, which isn't ideal conditions for an air raid offense. In Ames, the WVU run game picked up the load, and Alston played a massive role in carrying the team to bowl eligibility.
After Austin's touchdown and two-point conversion that gave WVU a seven-point lead, the Mountaineer defense carried the momentum and stopped the Iowa State drive.
Josh Frances snared a scrambling Sam Richardson on third down to stall the ISU drive. Then, he did something stupid.
He grabbed the freshman quarterback's helmet and tried to rip it off while he was just on the ground, and there's no better lesson for him than this:
You don't need to take his head back to DeForest, Josh.— Nick Arthur (@NarthurD) November 23, 2012
Needless to say, he was penalized, the ISU drive continued and the Cyclones marched all the way down to the WVU 14-yard line.
Then, the Mountaineer defense held strong again, culminating with a 3rd-and-10 incompletion. Then, Will Clarke did something stupid and he too was flagged for a personal foul.
Luckily, Iowa State running back Jeff Woody bailed them both out, coughing up the ball inside the WVU 5-yard line.
The Mountaineers recovered, ran the clock out and found a way to win for once, despite 11 penalties for 107 yards.
This isn't necessarily news when it comes to the WVU defense, but Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook are both very good, hard-hitting safeties.
Darwin Cook was No. 2 for WVU against ISU with nine tackles, one for loss and one enormous forced fumble at the end of the game.
On the recovery end of that fumble was WVU's No. 1 tackler Karl Joseph.
He had a team-high 13 tackles, including one for a loss. As usual, he was flying around the field and headhunting for any player in cardinal and gold with the football in his hands.
Finally, former safety and current hybrid "STAR" linebacker Terence Garvin netted seven tackles, good for No. 3 on the team.
However, another WVU corner was burnt for a long touchdown. This time freshman Terrell Chestnut was roasted with absolutely no safety help.
West Virginia's corners have been shuffled and have struggled all season long—it's clear they need some safety assistance, and that wasn't always there against ISU. Then again, that isn't exactly new for WVU.
Quarterback Sam Richardson absolutely carved up West Virginia, but not through the air.
He led ISU with 119 yards on the ground, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
If it weren't for his rushing, the Cyclones would have been the only team all season to total less than 300 yards of total offense.
Instead, they were only the first team since Maryland two months ago to total less than 400 yards of offense on WVU. Also, ISU was the only Big 12 Conference team with less than 400 total yards on the Mountaineers.
Regardless, Richardson had a field day, scrambling for seven first downs.
Against Kansas and in the bowl game, this is something WVU will have to sharpen up.
Dana Holgorsen, casting a spell on his secondary.
When did this happen?
West Virginia actually defended the pass against Iowa State, after allowing 364.6 yards per game all season long.
Cyclone quarterback Sam Richardson finished just 13-of-31 for 162 yards, though he did find the end zone three times.
That 41.9 percent completion percentage was WVU's lowest allowed all season long, and it was the lowest yardage total since Week 3 against James Madison.
This is a welcome change from the 554 yards and six touchdowns tallied by Landry Jones of Oklahoma last week.
After an awful missed extra point that cost WVU at least a shot at overtime last week against Oklahoma, Tyler Bitancurt came through with a solid kicking day.
He went 2-of-2 on extra points and 3-of-4 on the field goals.
Granted, one was an ugly boot that went off the upright and in and he missed another completely on an even uglier kick.
However, at the end of the day, he hit from 35, 42 and 44 yards on a very windy day.
In this very close game, those tough kicks were enormous.
I've already touched on Richardson quite a bit, and he did have his share of freshman moments and freshman throws, but he is still the answer under center for ISU.
Mistakes are to be expected with a freshman quarterback making his first start, but he also made his share of plays with his legs and his arm.
The Cyclones have been shuffling around quarterbacks between Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett, but on senior night, the freshman Richardson emerged as the future of the program.
He'll only improve with time, and he'll be giving Big 12 defenses fits for the next three years.
A month and a half ago, 13-0 was looking pretty good. A week ago, 6-7 with just a win over Kansas to separate seven losses was looking like a definite possibility.
Now, WVU can still hope to make 8-5, which, all things considered, is pretty solid in its first year in the Big 12.
The Mountaineers should be able to take care of lowly Kansas at home for senior day next week.
Then, after months of preparation in arguably college football's deepest conference, West Virginia should be able to compete with whichever team it is matched up with in its bowl game.
After an embarrassing five-game losing streak, 8-5 is an outcome WVU can not only be content with, but build on going forward.