TAMPA, Fla. (AP) —West Virginia found a way to win again, clinching a share of the Big East title and remaining in the running for the league’s automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
The 22nd-ranked Mountaineers have done it by rebounding from a disappointing loss to Louisville in early November to win three straight tight games, including Thursday night’s 30-27 victory over South Florida.
Now if they can get some help from another team looking for a piece of the title, their success in their first season under coach Dana Holgorsen will become even sweeter.
“We set that goal at the beginning of the season. We could’ve tanked it. We could’ve folded the tent,” Holgorsen said after Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, Pat Miller scored on a 52-yard interception return and Tyler Bitancurt kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired, giving West Virginia a portion of the conference crown for the second straight year.
The Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2) finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, beating Cincinnati by three points, Pittsburgh by one and going down to the wire again Thursday night.
With some help from Cincinnati this weekend, they will get into the BCS for the first time since 2007.
“We’ve figured out who we are. We’re a team that plays hard for four quarters,” Holgorsen said. “We get real excited. Above all else, just keep playing and you’ll find a way to win.’
The Mountaineers pulled even with Louisville in the conference standings and likely will receive the league’s automatic BCS bid if Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday to create a three-way tie for the league title.
Louisville earned a share by beating USF last week. The Cardinals hold the tiebreaker over West Virginia if the race ends in a two-way tie. But with a three-way deadlock, the BCS spot goes to the team that’s ranked highest in the final BCS rankings. That should work out for West Virginia, the only one of those teams that was ranked this week.
“I’m the biggest Cincinnati fan right now,” Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith said.
“Cincinnati is a good team. They’re well coached. They don’t need our words of wisdom to want to win the game and be co-Big East champs as well,” Holgorsen added. “I think they’ll be playing pretty hard.”
USF (5-7, 1-6) finished its season on a three-game losing streak and failed to qualify for a bowl bid for the first time in seven years.
Four of USF’s losses came in the closing seconds of games the Bulls easily could have won.
“You can’t ask this team to play with any more passion and any more heart,” coach Skip Holtz said. “I’ve had teams in my past with better records. I don’t know that I’ve had a team that has probably taught me more through handling adversity and perseverance and having a positive attitude.”
Smith threw for 237 yards and set up Bitancurt’s third field goal of the night with a 26-yard completion to Stedman Bailey on fourth-and-10 from the USF 42. The junior from Miami also led an 11-play, 78-yard drive that Dustin Garrison finished with a 5-yard TD run to make it 27-all with just more than 5 minutes to go.
The Mountaineers, who fell behind when JaQuez Jenkins returned one of USF’s two interceptions 24 yards for a TD that put the Bulls up 27-20, began the winning drive from their 26 after the Bulls’ B.J. Daniels drove his team into field goal range only to have the threat end when Najee Goode forced a fumble by the quarterback.
Daniels returned from a shoulder injury to throw for one touchdown and run for another. He scored on a 1-yard sneak 5 minutes into the fourth quarter and finished 21-of-44 passing for 226 yards. Darrell Scott rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries for the Bulls.
Smith completed 23 of 35 passes and was intercepted twice. Garrison finished with 87 yards rushing on 16 attempts.
South Florida, wrapping up its second season under Holtz, lost seven of eight following a 4-0 start that included a win at Notre Dame. That victory lifted the Bulls into the Top 25 for a four-week stay that ended when they dropped their Big East opener. The third losing season in the school’s relatively brief football history ended a streak of six consecutive bowl appearances.
USF went 5-6 in 1997 — the year former coach Jim Leavitt began the program from scratch — and again in 2003, the Bulls’ first season in Conference USA.
“I’m disappointed that we couldn’t get it done for the seniors ... because they worked so hard and they contributed so much for this program,” Bulls linebacker Sam Barrington said. “It’s just unfortunate.”
Smith said West Virginia never had any doubts that it would get the job done, even after his second interception gave USF its only lead of the night.
“All three of our last games were tough. We like to challenge ourselves. I don’t know why,” the Mountaineers quarterback said. “I’d like to win in a blowout, but that’s not how we do it around here. It hasn’t always been peachy for us, but we manage to make the right plays and win the game.”