CHARLOTTE, N.C. - In a game that flooded 66,793 college football fans into this North Carolina city, an unexpected player - the weather - appeared to play a part in the outcome.
With West Virginia University’s defense panting and Heisman Trophy candidate Will Grier a bit off toward the end of the first half against Tennessee, a weather delay extended halftime. It apparently helped both the Mountaineers’ defense and Grier because in that second half, lightning struck for WVU.
West Virginia bested the Southeastern Conference opponent by 40-14 in the Belk College Kickoff game at the Bank of America Stadium behind Grier’s 25 of 34 passing for 429 yards and five touchdowns. All-America receiver David Sills had two of the scores and 140 yards receiving. It was the first meeting between the schools’ football programs.
The contest was decided in the second half after an official halftime delay of one hour, five minutes. WVU coach Dana Holgorsen was asked what he did during that time.
“Watched football games,” Holgorsen said. “Ate two bananas. Had a couple of cold beverages. And obviously made a whole bunch of adjustments.”
The break certainly appeared to help.
“I thought one of the keys was letting our coaches coach,” Holgorsen said. “I liked our ability to make halftime adjustments. I was actually OK when they said we were in a lightning delay. I said, ‘Good, we have more time to make adjustments.’ Most of the time, we have to hurry up and get things going, get things done and hurry back out there.”
Grier was 9 of 15 passing for 154 yards in the first half. In the second half, he was 16 of 19 for 275.
“I felt good today,” Grier said. “We did a good job of managing what we wanted to do. It took us a while to get started, but, especially in the second half, I had a good understanding of what they were doing and what we wanted to do. It was about efficiency. I thought we did a good job of being efficient and executing.”
Holgorsen said he generally was pleased with Grier’s performance.
“He got caught with the ball a couple too many times when he was scrambling,” Holgorsen said. “But he did a much better job controlling the game and getting us in the right play and getting the ball out of his hands in the second half. That’s the Will I need to see.”
The first half set up the story of the game. In the first two periods, there was a swing in fortunes toward the Volunteers. After Tennessee won the toss and elected to receive, it quickly appeared to be a bad idea. The Mountaineer defense, led by pushes by graduate transfer Kenny Bigelow, forced the Volunteers to punt after three plays and the line dominated for much of the first quarter. At the end of the period, UT had minus-17 yards rushing and trailed 10-0.
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s offense looked to be in fine shape. On the team’s first possession, Grier led the Mountaineers on a seven-play, 39-yard field goal drive. Then, on WVU’s second possession, Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons made his presence felt by grabbing a pass on a crossing pattern, eluding defenders and dashing down the left sideline for a 59-yard touchdown catch. The Mountaineers covered 85 yards in five plays.
The problem for West Virginia, though, was it started misfiring on third downs. That played into the hands of new Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the former Alabama defensive coordinator.
In a rebuilding mode, Pruitt hoped to pound the ball, run clock and keep WVU’s offense off the field. In the second quarter, that happened. The Vols went from that minus-17 yards rushing to 44 by the half. The key was a 17-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that concluded with a fourth-and-1 toss to tight end Dominick Wood-Anders with 6:13 remaining.
WVU did, however, rally a bit, moving 72 yards in eight plays for a 35-yard Evan Staley field goal as the first half expired to take a 13-7 lead. It didn’t exactly feel like there was a momentum shift, however, because after holding the Volunteers to 27 first-quarter yards, the Mountaineers allowed 108 in the second. And those third-down opportunities? While UT converted 5 of 10, WVU was 0 of 3.
Then came the weather delay - as well as the rise of Grier and his receiving corps.
Marcus Simms provided a bolt of lightning with a 32-yard kickoff return and, more importantly, a converted third down. On third-and-7, Simms went for 32 yards.
That set up Grier and Sills for a 33-yard touchdown connection. The four-play drive went for 68 yards in 2:06 and extended WVU’s lead to 20-7.
Perhaps the game-winning drive, however, came after a Mountaineer defensive stop. After WVU safety Toyous Avery broke up a pass leading to a punt, Martell Pettaway broke open for a 22-yard run. Five plays later, Grier laid another beauty into the hands of Gary Jennings in the right corner of the end zone. With 8:09 remaining in the third quarter, the Mountaineers were up 27-7.
The teams traded touchdowns - WVU’s was a third-down TD catch by Kennedy McKoy’s - before the final intrigue.
With West Virginia marching, McKoy fumbled to the Vols. Tennessee moved down the field and appeared set to score, but a Jarrett Guarantano fade pass to Josh Palmer sailed out of bounds. That failure at 6:43 sealed the Mountaineer victory.
WVU (1-0) will open the home schedule at 6 p.m. Saturday at Puskar Stadium against Youngstown State. The Penguins lost to Butler 23-21 to open the season.