MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) West Virginia was supposed to be in rebuilding mode in the Big 12 this season as the conference welcomes the return of its championship game. Behind national touchdown receptions leader David Sills V and comeback kid Will Grier, the Mountaineers’ latest performance has put the rest of the conference on notice.
West Virginia has immersed itself in the early title chase in a league it has yet to win since joining in 2012.
A 46-35 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday was the statement the Mountaineers have been craving.
West Virginia entered the weekend with nine straight losses to ranked opponents and was staring at an 18-point deficit to the Red Raiders late in the third quarter.
The Mountaineers scored the final 29 points in the greatest home comeback in a quarter century. Grier threw four of his five touchdown passes in the final 20 minutes.
”We had to adjust on the fly,” Grier said. ”I say every week that all these games are important and the Big 12’s really good this year. And I’ll probably continue to say it. We’ve got to keep it rolling.”
The win returned West Virginia to The Associated Press poll at No. 23. Texas Tech, which had been at No. 24, dropped out.
It’s the third time this season the Mountaineers are in the poll. They exited after earlier losses to No. 14 Virginia Tech and No. 4 TCU.
The Mountaineers (4-2, 2-1) are in a five-way tie for second place behind TCU (6-0, 3-0), while Texas Tech (4-2, 1-2) saw its title-game chances clouded.
Things will certainly thin out further in the coming weeks. After West Virginia travels to winless Baylor on Saturday, the Mountaineers have back-to-back home games against No. 10 Oklahoma State and resurgent Iowa State, who also are in the second-place logjam along with No. 9 Oklahoma and Texas. West Virginia plays the Sooners and Longhorns in November.
West Virginia has fit right in with an offensive-minded league, ranking in the top 10 nationally in scoring and passing yards. It’s the defense that needs work, surrendering an average of 454 yards per game.
Against Texas Tech, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said there was no yelling at halftime, just adjustments. Texas Tech’s Nic Shimonek threw for 323 yards but had only 71 in the second half.
West Virginia linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said he saw his team’s swagger return after Texas Tech’s Michael Barden missed three field goals, the last one late in the third quarter.
”We’ve had this opportunity a few different times this season and weren’t able to capitalize on it. Today we were,” linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said. ”The thing about this game was we played as a team – finally. When the offense came off to the sideline (they said) get us that ball back. They believed that we would. We believed once we did, they would go get a touchdown.”
Doing much of the work was Sills, whose three touchdown grabs increased his season output to a dozen, three more than anyone else in the country. A year ago Sills was playing quarterback at a California junior college but returned this season to West Virginia, where he caught just seven passes as a freshman in 2015.
Sills insists that Grier makes his job easy. Grier is tied with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett with 21 TD passes, the most in the nation.
”He told me for the season he wanted 10, so it’s actually kind of funny he has 12 now,” Grier said. ”The guy just finds the end zone.”
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