Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Defense and special teams lead WVU to Duke’s Mayo Bowl victory over North Carolina, 30-10

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The West Virginia Mountaineers didn’t play quite like themselves, but found a way to win Wednesday night, defeating North Carolina 30-10 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in front of what was essentially a home crowd at Bank of American Stadium. 

The Mountaineers (9-4, 6-3 Big 12) did not run the ball as effectively as they usually do, nor did they control the clock like they usually do.

“This was not our typical game but we found a way to win,” WVU coach Neal Brown said following a mayo bath. “This isn’t the way we won all year.”

Instead, the Mountaineers played punishing defense, won the turnover and field position battles and hit big plays through the air.

For North Carolina (8-5, 4-4 ACC) the story of the game was who wasn’t playing as several top players opted out in preparation for the NFL Draft, including star quarterback Drake Maye. Conner Harrell made his first career start in place of Maye and found some success, but struggled with consistency and was sacked seven times.

“I thought Conner completed, I didn’t think we helped him enough,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We didn’t give him enough protection.”

While Maye sat out of the game and his replacement struggled, West Virginia’s Beanie Bishop, a consensus All-American cornerback, elected to play in the game and came up big as an injury replacement.

With regular punt returner Preston Fox out with an injury, Bishop’s first-ever punt return was a 78-yard touchdown that put WVU up 14-3 in the second quarter.

“We worked special teams every day, a lot,” Bishop said. “The blocks were set up well, they over-pursued to the left side and I had a lot of blockers for however many guys they had and I just outran a lot of people.”

Bishop never even considered opting out of the game and said it felt great to be able to come through with a big play.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It just shows how tough the state of West Virginia is. There wasn’t really a thought process behind me playing.”

The first play of the game was a 75-yard touchdown throw from WVU quarterback Garrett Greene to Taylon Ray. That was the offense’s only success early, however, as WVU’s next three drives resulted in a punt, lost fumble and missed field goal before Bishop’s punt return.

WVU’s defense held Harrell and the Tar Heels in check while the offense stagnated. Safety Aubrey Burks grabbed an interception in the endzone to snuff out a UNC scoring chance in the first half. Marcis Floyd later recovered a muffed punt in the second quarter and pass rusher Tyrin Bradley snagged a one-handed interception after halftime.

All the while, WVU’s defensive front sacked Harrell seven times. Jared Barlett led with two sacks while Edward Vesterinen and Jalen Thornton each had 1.5.

“We played extremely physical, which is hard to do in a bowl game,” Neal Brown said. “Just fired up for our guys defensively.”

Even when UNC’s offense found success, WVU responded right away. The Tar Heels scored just before halftime as Harrell hit J.J. Jones from 16 yards for a touchdown with just 27 seconds left.

In those 27 seconds, however, WVU went 63 yards and kicked a 30-yard field goal as time expired to lead 17-10 at the break.

In the second half, WVU’s defense dominated. UNC did not score and was held to 131 total yards.

“We didn’t change too much,” said WVU linebacker Lee Kpogba, who finished with a dozen tackles. “(Harrell) was faster than I thought he was when I first tried to catch him.”

Freshman running back Jahiem White scored an 11-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter to put WVU up 27-10 and start to put the game away. Michael Hayes’ 29-yard field goal with eight minutes left made it 30-10.

“If you look at the stats, the game should’ve been closer than it was,” Mack Brown said. “But credit to them, it wasn’t.”

Greene finished with 228 passing yards, a touchdown and 64 rushing yards and was named game MVP. White ran for 50 yards and a touchdown. Ray had six catches for 91 yards while Hudson Clement had six for 89.

For UNC, Harrell threw for 199 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. He gained 74 rushing yards, but the negative sack yardage left him with just 25 net yards. Running back Omarion Hampton, who was named first-team All-ACC, was held to just 62 yards on 19 carries.