West Virginia squanders late opportunities in 41-31 loss to No. 7 TCU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Another winnable game went to waste for West Virginia, which hung tough with seventh-ranked TCU, but couldn’t deliver down the stretch in a 41-31 loss Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium.

“We’re based on outcomes and I get that,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “The outcome wasn’t what we wanted. People can be upset with me and that’s fine, but they can’t question how those guys played today. There shouldn’t be any ill will with those kids today. I’m proud of how they played.”

The Mountaineers (3-5, 1-4) trailed for the entirety of the second half, but weren’t without chances in what marked Brown’s first loss to the Horned Frogs in his fourth season.

The last of the opportunities came with TCU in front 34-31 after Reese Smith’s highlight-worthy 23-yard touchdown pass brought West Virginia to within a field goal with 4:12 remaining.

Despite having all three timeouts at his disposal, Brown elected for Casey Legg to try an onside kick, and the Horned Frogs recovered it unchallenged at West Virginia’s 44-yard line.

“That is the least successful I’ve ever seen him kick one,” Brown said. “I would do it again. He’s the best I’ve seen at onside kicks.”

Consecutive incomplete passes from TCU quarterback Max Duggan led to a third-and-10, and the Horned Frogs’ signal-caller was intercepted for the second time this season on that play by Malachi Ruffin, allowing the Mountaineers to start at their 16 with 3:56 left.

West Virginia, however, quickly went three-and-out. No. 4 tailback Jaylen Anderson was the lone scholarship running back healthy and dropped a swing pass on first down, before being stopped for a 3-yard loss on second down. JT Daniels’ third down pass fell incomplete, leaving the Mountaineers with fourth-and-13.

“You get the ball after Ruffin’s pick and have to do something with it,” Brown said. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance to even go for it on fourth down. Probably the most disappointing drive we’ve had all year.”

TCU (8-0, 5-0) took over at midfield following an Oliver Straw punt and Duggan’s 5-yard run on third-and-3 produced a first down. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Mountaineers’ 29 with 26 seconds to play, the Horned Frogs kept their offense on the field and it paid off in the form of Duggan’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Savion Williams that sealed the verdict.

“That’s a play where a guy went up and got it,” WVU cornerback Charles Woods said. “Guys on offense at other schools are on scholarship just like us.”

Had Williams not brought in the pass, the outcome still wouldn’t have been in doubt as linebacker Exree Loe was flagged for being offside on the play.

West Virginia trailed 28-21 at halftime and punted on the opening series of the third quarter, but got a big special teams break when the punt hit off TCU’s Noah Daniels and was recovered by Ruffin, allowing the Mountaineers to start at the Horned Frogs’ 17.

But TCU limited WVU to 2 yards on three plays and maintained its lead by forcing a 33-yard field goal from Legg that allowed the Mountaineers to trail by four.

“That’s the drive that really bothers me,” Brown said. “We settle for a field goal and had momentum.”

WVU forced a three-and-out on the ensuing series and moved into the red zone, before Daniels threw consecutive incomplete passes on third and fourth down from the Horned Frogs’ 4. The latter one was intended for Kaden Prather and Brown felt the Horned Frogs should’ve been flagged for pass interference.

“If somebody can tell me what pass interference is, let me know,” said Brown, who added his team should’ve run the ball on the third down play. “If that’s not pass interference, I don’t know what is. If our kid doesn’t have a chance to make a play, it has to be pass interference.” 

TCU then got off its goal line and Duggan found Williams for 57 yards, allowing the Horned Frogs to move to the WVU 27. Four plays later, Duggan threw to Quentin Johnston for 11 yards on fourth-and-3, though the Mountaineers stood tall on three plays inside the 5 and forced a Griffin Kell 30-yard field goal that made it 31-24 with 13:03 to play.

After another West Virginia punt, TCU got a 46-yard field goal from Kell with 9:11 remaining that marked the first two-score lead for either team to that point.

Both defenses settled in during the second half. TCU gained 332 of its 494 yards through the two quarters, while West Virginia had all but 125 of its 430 total yards in the opening half.

“In the second half, we blitzed more than we’d been blitzing and played more man coverage than we had,” Brown said. “That looked more like the defense we’ve played in the past.”

A back-and-forth first half featured leads of 7-0 and 14-7 for the Mountaineers, who got their first two touchdowns on 1-yard CJ Donaldson runs. In between, TCU struck courtesy of Duggan’s 71-yard pass to Taye Barber, who found himself in single coverage working against linebacker Lee Kpogba.

Duggan’s 55-yard TD pass to Johnston enabled the Horned Frogs to tie it at 14, and Lwal Uguak recovered a Daniels fumble that Tre’Vius Tomlinson forced on the ensuing series.

On the very next play, tailback Kendre Miller raced untouched to the end zone on a 51-yard run that gave TCU a 21-14 lead 7 minutes before halftime.

“We didn’t do a good job of leveraging the football,” Brown said. You’re going to hit some passes. The frustrating ones are the long runs.”

West Virginia pulled even on a fourth-and-2 conversion from the 5 as Daniels found tailback Justin Johnson open for the score 1:35 before halftime.

But with time winding down in the first half, the Horned Frogs answered with a key 73-yard drive that featured Duggan’s 28-yard completion to Derius Davis on third-and-10 and was capped by Emani Bailey’s 30-yard touchdown run that allowed the visitors to lead 28-21 at halftime.

Duggan threw for 341 yards despite completing only 16-of-28 passes.

Barber led all players with 99 receiving yards on four catches, while Williams had 97 yards on three receptions and Johnston totaled 76 on four grabs.

Miller rushed for 120 yards on only 12 carries.

Daniels hit on 23-of-39 passes for 275 yards. Sam James was West Virginia’s leading receiver with six receptions for 95 yards.

“We’re frustrated, because we fought against No. 7 and didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” James said.

Donaldson rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries before leaving with an injury. He was shaken up on separate occasions in the contest and never returned on the latter occasion.

Brown called the injury “bad”, and latter added that it was to Donaldson’s lower leg area.

With Johnson also hobbled and Tony Mathis ruled out before the game, it left Anderson, with limited experience, as the tailback on the game’s most critical series.

“It is tough, but at that point that’s who we had,” Brown said. “His first significant action and he got forced into action, but you have to be ready when your number is called.”

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