The reason for his team's second-half revival last night, West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen said as sweat ran down his face and joy rippled across it in the postgame locker room, was really quite simple.
"Defense and the fact we were able to run the ball. That was the difference," Nehlen said after his Mountaineers broke from a 10-10 halftime tie to defeat Maryland, 31-21.
Oh, how the defense cramped Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason, sacked four times, and his offense in the second half.
"The only way to stop Boomer Esiason is to drop down to your knees and pray," Nehlen said, joking.
Fact is, it was really a newly instituted West Virgina defense, deploying primarily man-to-man coverage of the receivers while linebackers often blitzed and free safety Tim Agee prowled free across the horizon, that caused the Terrapins problems.
"We call it the 'Liberty' defense," said Agee, who is from Bethesda. "We did a lot of blitzing tonight, which we hadn't done before. We had to pressure Boomer."
It was Agee, whose strained back muscle had him listed as doubtful until game time, who provided the vicious hit of the evening, separating receiver Russell Davis from a fourth-quarter catch that would have given Maryland a first down. Davis remained on the ground for a few moments, as many Mountaineer defenders exchanged high fives. It was that kind of night for Maryland.
Meanwhile, it was running back Tom Gray, who gained 94 yards on 17 carries, who kept slip-sliding away from the Terrapin defense. His 17-yard touchdown run gave the Mountaineers a 17-10 third-quarter lead they would never relinquish.
"The whole game, even in the first half, we knew we could move the ball. We just stopped making mistakes and dumb penalties in the second half," said quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who completed 11 of 22 for 218 yards and two touchdowns.
One of Hostetler's touchdown passes was a strange one, indeed. With one minute left in the third quarter, West Virginia leading, 17-10, Terrapin linebackers blitzed. Hostetler quickly threw over the middle to tight end Rob Bennett, who zig-zagged across the field, then back, running by two defenders, for a 42-yard touchdown. End of game.
"I was just looking for my blockers," Bennett said, after his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame had plowed past such smaller defenders as Joe Kraus and Lendell Jones. "I was slow, but I got in the end zone."
Prior to last night, West Virgina (3-0) had beaten Ohio University (55-3) and University of the Pacific (48-7). Sure, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 20, but they also were rankled by the fact doubts still hovered over their heads.
"That's why we're glad to beat a good team like Maryland," said wide receiver Rich Hollins, who caught a 43-yard touchdown pass that made it 31-13. Then he laughed hard.