Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Streak Snapped: Mountaineers stunned by Houston’s last-second Hail Mary in 41-39 loss

MORGANTOWN — Two seconds.

West Virginia was two seconds away from a 5-1 start to the season and a 3-0 start in the Big 12.

Garrett Greene and Hudson Clement were two seconds away from being heroes.

The Mountaineers were two seconds away from overcoming a pile of mistakes to win their fifth straight game that would have continued to prove their doubters wrong.

And two seconds was all Houston needed to erase all of it.

The Houston Cougars (3-3, 1-2 Big 12), led by former WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, pulled off a stunning victory over the Mountaineers (4-2, 2-1) Thursday night as quarterback Donovan Smith threw a 49-yard Hail Mary that receiver Stephon Johnson caught off of a deflection in the endzone for a 41-39 win as time expired.

“We didn’t lose the game on the last play,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “Where we lost the game is discipline. That’s what’s gotten us to this point. We were not a disciplined team (Thursday).”

West Virginia rallied from a 35-24 deficit with less than eight minutes to play to take a 39-35 with just 12 seconds remaining on the clock. The Mountaineers took the lead when Greene, who played the best game of his career, threw a do-or-die 50-yard touchdown to Clement on fourth down from midfield.

After the play, Greene was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, one of a season-high eight fouls committed by the Mountaineers, that pushed the ensuing kickoff back 15 yards and gave Houston the ball at its own 43-yard line with a chance to win the game.

A chance was all the Cougars needed as Smith connected on his 16th-straight pass for his fourth and final touchdown throw of the game. That 15-yard penalty proved costly as the Cougars only had seven seconds when they received the ball.

“I don’t know how that happened at the end,” Holgorsen said. “I guess the football gods were on our side (Thursday). We’ll take it.”

During its four-game winning streak, West Virginia hadn’t been playing its best but was avoiding mistakes and not beating itself. On Thursday, both of those trends were revered as the Mountaineers played their best game of the year on offense, but let mistakes and miscues pile up on defense and special teams as the Mountaineers lost for the first time since their season-opener.

The Cougars piled up 393 yards and 41 points against a WVU defense that had been playing lights-out over the last three games. Houston also severely outplayed West Virginia on special teams as the Mountaineers’ four-game winning streak was snapped.

“They didn’t do anything (Thursday) that we didn’t expect them to do,” Brown said of Houston’s offense. “We did not tackle well. Anytime you don’t tackle well, it’s going to be a struggle.”

Greene threw for a career-high 391 yards and scored four total touchdowns, including the would-be game-winner to Clement. The team’s 39 points were the most this season against an FBS opponent. 

However, the Mountaineers committed a season-high eight penalties for 84 yards, gave up an uncharacteristic 184 yards on kickoff return and had a would-be touchdown turn into an interception as, for the first time this season, West Virginia made too many critical mistakes to overcome.

At halftime, West Virginia led Houston in plays (40-29), yards (197-109) and time of possession (19:43-10:17) but trailed on the scoreboard 14-10 as the Mountaineers failed to capitalize on their early advantage.

Houston began the game with a three-and-out and WVU’s ball-control offense immediately went to work, embarking on a 16-play, 82-yard march that took ate up nearly eight minutes of game time. The Mountaineers were unable to get into the endzone, however, and settled for a Michael Hayes 27-yard field goal.

The Cougars responded when Matthew Golden returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 UH lead.

WVU found the endzone on its next drive, as Greene had a pair of long completions, 31 yards to Preston Fox and 18 yards to CJ Donaldson, to set up the scoring chance. Greene then made the key block that allowed Donaldson to score on a five-yard run to take a 10-7 lead.

A penalty and a botched pitch ruined WVU’s next drive as the Mountaineers were forced into their first punt of the game. Both offenses were stuck in neutral following that as the team traded seven straight punts until there were less than two minutes to play before half. 

Getting the ball on their own 44-yard line, Houston was able to piece a drive together to find points just before the break. UH quarterback Donovan Smith completed five consecutive passes before a WVU pass interference penalty moved the ball to the two-yard line. Smith ran the ball in himself to give Houston a 14-10 advantage at halftime.

WVU again had a chance to take control of the game as the Mountaineers came out of halftime to score a touchdown on a 35-yard pass from Greene to freshman Traylon Ray to take a 17-14 lead and then forced a three-and-out to get the ball right back.

The Mountaineers were poised to increase their lead, but Greene’s would-be touchdown pass to running back Jaylen Anderson was bobbled and ultimately picked off in the endzone.

Houston converted that into a 15-yard touchdown throw from Smith to go up 21-17.

Although WVU scored on its next drive to retake the lead, the Cougars found the endzone on three straight possessions to lead 35-24 midway through the fourth quarter.

Greene orchestrated a necessary 88-yard scoring drive, capped off when he ran into the endzone from eight yards out. Ray’s juggling two-point conversion made it just a field-goal game, 35-32 Houston.

WVU got what it thought would be its final stop on defense, although safety Marcis Floyd’s pass interference penalty on third down allowed Houston to run an extra minute off the clock and punt the ball back to the Mountaineers with just 1:17 remaining.

It looked like that was all WVU would need when Greene found Clement for the heroic 50-yard score, but Houston needed even less time for its response on the game-winner.

Devin Carter led WVU’s receivers with 116 yards while Ray and Clement each scored a touchdown. Donaldson had 66 yards and a score on the ground and 25 yards through the air.

WVU finished with 546 total yards in what was easily its best offensive showing of the year.

Smith completed every pass he attempted in the second half, finishing 21 of 27 for 253 yards and four scores. He also ran for a touchdown. Johnson led with 96 yards and two touchdowns while Joseph Manjack and former WVU receiver Samuel Brown also scored.

After failing on each of its first four third downs, Houston converted on four of its final six. The Cougars only punted twice after halftime and had an average starting field position of 32.2 yards after the break.