MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the most part, West Virginia had been strong at the outset in its first four games.
Yet on homecoming Saturday with a banged-up Texas Tech team in town, a flat first half proved too much to overcome for the Mountaineers.
The Red Raiders built a 17-0 lead at the break, then responded to West Virginia’s rally with a 32-yard field goal from Jonathan Garibay with 18 seconds left to earn a 23-20 victory in front of 54,090 at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“The first half was inexcusable,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “I apologize to the fans. I’m pissed with how we played in the first half. We weren’t ready to go. Our energy level was exceeded by theirs and it was not good enough.”
It marked the third straight win in the series for Texas Tech, which lost to WVU five consecutive times before that.
While Garibay’s field goal stood as the game winner, it was the Red Raiders’ play over the first two quarters by and large that enabled them to improve to 4-1.
“We gave ourselves a hole that we struggled to dig out of,” Brown said.
Sean Mahone intercepted a Kaylon Geiger pass on Tech’s trick play on its opening series for one of the Mountaineers’ few bright spots of the opening half.
After a three-and-out on WVU’s opening series, the Red Raiders marched 58 yards and went on top on the first of two SaRodorick Thompson 1-yard touchdown runs.
Thompson’s second score came after Colin Schooler forced a Jarret Doege fumble that Devin Drew recovered on the WVU 34, leaving the Red Raiders with a short field.
Garrett Greene replaced Doege on the Mountaineers’ third series, which went 54 yards before Greene’s pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-2 from the TTU 34.
Garibay connected on a 33-yard field goal on the final play of the half to send Texas Tech into the intermission with a 17-point lead. The Red Raiders converted 7-of-9 third downs over the first two quarters and outgained the Mountaineers 207-109 after 17 more offensive plays (44-27).
“They did a good job,” Brown said. “They got us out-flanked a couple times. They made some plays on balls down the field. Their energy level was better than ours and they converted some third downs early in the contest.”
WVU had nine second-half points and no touchdowns against its first three Power 5 Conference opponents this season, but looked like a different team to start the third quarter. The Mountaineers went 75 yards in seven plays and Doege’s 40-yard pass to Sam James set up Leddie Brown’s 4-yard TD run.
Following the Red Raiders’ first three-and-out to start the second half, the Mountaineers made it a one-score game when Casey Legg made a 36-yard field goal. WVU reached the Texas Tech 11 on that drive, which stalled following a false start penalty and two Doege incompletions.
However, the Mountaineers got the ball back quickly again after forcing another three-and-out. Doege connected with Isaiah Esdale for 55 yards, and the duo hooked up again for a 14-yard touchdown on a play in which Esdale took a big hit, but hung on for the score to tie the contest at 17 with 1:15 left in the third quarter. The hit originally drew a targeting penalty, but it was overturned after being reviewed.
“I knew I was going to take a shot,” Esdale said, “but thought I have to hang on to this one.”
A 46-yard pass from Colombi to Loic Fouonji led to Garibay’s 29-yard field goal with 11:46 left and allowed Texas Tech to regain the lead, 20-17.
The Mountaineers put themselves in position to take their first lead on their only extended fourth-quarter series when they converted a fourth-and-1 from the Red Raiders’ 35 on Brown’s 5-yard run.
WVU picked up one more first down and got to the Tech 6, but Doege couldn’t connect with an uncovered Brown for what would’ve been a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, the Mountaineers settled for Legg’s tying 28-yard field goal with 4:34 to play.
Making matters more difficult for West Virginia (2-3, 0-2) was that it used its second timeout of the half prior to a first down play in the red zone on that series.
“We had the wrong personnel grouping,” Brown said. “That’s on me. You can blame me. We had good plays. I’m as pissed about that as anything.”
The Mountaineers had also called a timeout while in the red zone 2:57 into the third quarter, leaving them with only one down the stretch.
That proved to have a major impact, particularly after Texas Tech got a 42-yard pass from Colombi to Geiger on a ball that was underthrown, but Geiger made a nice adjustment to get back to.
Consecutive runs of 16 and 13 yards by Thompson put Texas Tech in the red zone and allowed it to use much of the remaining time.
WVU called its last timeout with 1:08 left prior to third-and-goal, and after getting a stop, Garibay put home his third field goal with 18 seconds remaining to provide the final margin.
“He’s been even keel, kind of steely-eyes and just a very consistent young man in his life and in the way he’s practiced,” Red Raiders’ head coach Matt Wells said. “Certainly, the moment is not too big for him.”
The Mountaineers got the ball back on their own 9 and reached their 38 on Doege’s 29-yard pass to Esdale, before the game ended on an incompletion.
Doege finished 25-of-33 for 318 yards, 276 of which he threw for after halftime.
“If people want to get pissed at me, that’s fine,” Brown said. “I’m fine with that. But the kid played well in the second half.”
Esdale had six catches for 113 yards, while Winston Wright Jr. hauled in nine passes for 106 yards in the setback.
WVU freshman right tackle Wyatt Milum earned his first career start, but did not play in the second half after appearing to suffer an injury earlier in the game.
Colombi completed 23-of-34 passes for 266 yards and connected with Geiger seven times for 82 yards.
Texas Tech played without its top wideout Erik Ezukanma, who entered having caught 23 passes for 406 yards. Ezukanma was one of several starters the Red Raiders were without.
“The win is absolutely credited to our players,” Wells said. “When you leave eight guys and two of your top corners and two of your top receivers at home, your quarterback, your center, your safety, then you get in the game and you have guys going down, it’s just the essence of team and staying together and pulling together.”
West Virginia defensive lineman Dante Stills had two sacks and three tackles for loss.
The Mountaineers had their seven-game home win streak snapped and now look to end a six-game road losing skid next Saturday at Baylor.
“It hurts,” Stills said. “I hate losing. We have to bounce back and work. We can’t do anything about it now — just have to keep it going.”