West Virginia blanks North Carolina in second half to pull away for 30-10 victory in Duke’s Mayo Bowl

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(Neal Brown postgame press conference)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — West Virginia couldn’t have scripted a better start to Wednesday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl against North Carolina.

Yet it was a dominant second half that allowed the Mountaineers to pull away from the Tar Heels and claim a 30-10 victory at Bank of America Stadium, giving West Virginia a nine-win season for the second time since it joined the Big 12 Conference.

Garrett Greene’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Traylon Ray on the first play from scrimmage gave the Mountaineers (9-4) an early 7-0 lead, and West Virginia’s defense got better as the game progressed, blanking the Tar Heels after halftime to help close the season with five victories over the final six contests.

“This is going to be a catapult for us. I really feel like we should end the season in the top 25,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown, who improved to 2-1 in bowl games with the Mountaineers. “We’ve earned that right. I have a vote and I’ll vote us in.

“The feeling in the locker room being able to hoist a trophy and win your last game is meaningful. This was not our typical game, but we found a way to win.” 

Ray’s early touchdown grab was one of two offensive TDs for WVU. The other — an 11-yard run from true freshman tailback Jahiem White — helped seal the verdict and gave the Mountaineers a 27-10 lead with 12:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.

White’s scoring run came two plays after Greene broke off a 48-yard run to begin West Virginia’s first fourth-quarter series.

“We were rusty. Jahiem was finally Jahiem on that last run for a touchdown,” Brown said. “He stuck his foot in the ground and got vertical.”

(WVU players postgame press conference)

The Tar Heels turned it over on downs on their next two possessions, while Mountaineer kicker Michael Hayes made a 29-yard field goal in between to provide the game’s final points with 7:58 remaining.

“It means a lot to go out with a win and just seeing how hard guys on defense work and what we’ve been through in the offseason,” said WVU linebacker Lee Kpogba, who recorded a game-high 12 tackles. “Nobody really believed in us but us, so it feels great to prove people wrong.”

An Aubrey Burks interception of a Conner Harrell red zone pass with 3:26 left in the first quarter prevented North Carolina (8-5) from scoring in the opening period, though the Tar Heels got the ball back before that frame ended as a result of DJ Oliver losing a fumble that Armani Chatman recovered. 

UNC got into the red zone again on its ensuing series and was lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the WVU 11, but a false start penalty forced them to settle for Noah Burnette’s 28-yard field goal 8:34 before halftime.

Although the Mountaineers punted on their next series, they got a break when the punt deflected off of UNC’s Paul Billups II and was recovered by WVU’s Marcis Floyd at the Tar Heels’ 26.

However, West Virginia was unable to capitalize after tackle Doug Nester committed his second holding penalty and the series ended with Hayes missing short on a 52-yard field goal.

(Game highlights)

The Mountaineers then came up with a stop that forced a UNC punt, one WVU cornerback Beanie Bishop Jr. returned 78 yards for a touchdown 1:29 before halftime, leaving the Tar Heels facing a 14-3 deficit. It was the first punt return of Bishop’s career and occurred as a result of an injury to wideout Preston Fox in the regular season finale at Baylor that prevented him from playing Wednesday.

“I had to run to go get it,” Bishop said. “I think he out-kicked his coverage. I made one or two guys miss and was off to the races.”

Tar Heels’ head coach Mack Brown felt allowing a special teams touchdown was something his team wouldn’t be able to overcome, particularly with what all UNC was missing in the matchup as a result of opt outs and injuries.

“We knew to win the game we had to win the turnover ratio and we lost it 3-1. We knew to win the game we had to win the kicking game and they returned a punt for a touchdown,” Mack Brown said.

UNC responded with its only touchdown drive, which covered 76 yards in six plays and culminated with Harrell’s 16-yard pass to J.J. Jones that brought Tar Heels to within 14-10 with 27 seconds left in the half.

Yet the momentum garnered from that series was short-lived as Greene connected with Hudson Clement on passes of 32, 15 and 14 yards, which allowed Hayes to knock in a 30-yard field goal on the final play of the half for a 17-10 advantage.

“Their quarterback made some great throws right before the half,” Mack Brown said. “When you have 27 seconds and two timeouts in college football, that’s still a lot.”

A one-handed Tyrin Bradley interception of a Harrell pass brought an end to another Tar Heels’ series in WVU territory to start the second half, though the Mountaineers failed to capitalize and muted it back to UNC four plays later.

However, WVU’s defense forced a punt of its own and the Mountaineers regained a two-score lead courtesy of Hayes’ 34-yard field goal with 2:40 to play in the third quarter.

UNC punted it back to WVU on the opening play of the fourth quarter, and three plays later, the Mountaineers all but put the game out of reach when White reached the end zone.

“That’s what’s great about the bowl season,” Neal Brown said. “You can finish as a champion. That locker room feels really good about themselves and what they were able to accomplish.”

(Postgame “Round of Sound”)

Five of West Virginia’s seven sacks came in the second half, with eight different Mountaineers recording at least a half sack.

Greene was named MVP after completing 11-of-22 passes for 204 yards and rushing for a game-high 75 yards on nine attempts.

White added 50 yards on 12 carries. Ray had a game-best 91 receiving yards on three receptions, while Clement caught five passes for 89 yards.

Harrell, making his first career start in place of Drake Maye after Maye opted out to prepare for a professional football career, hit on 18-of-27 passes for 199 yards. He rushed 17 times for 39 yards as well, though his legs became less of a factor after tweaking an ankle in the second quarter, according to Mack Brown.

“Conner competed. We didn’t help him enough or give him enough protection,” Mack Brown said.” The game should’ve been closer than it was, but a credit to West Virginia that it wasn’t.”

Neal Brown received a mayo bath after the result, which allowed him to improve to 31-29 in his West Virginia tenure.

“I would not recommend that to anybody,” Neal Brown said.

The contest was played before a crowd of 42,925, the majority of which were Mountaineer fans.

“That’s the special part about West Virginia,” Greene said. “Not too many teams can have a home game in an away state.”

(Greg Carey and Joe Brocato recap the game)

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West Virginia blanks North Carolina in second half to pull away for 30-10 victory in Duke’s Mayo Bowl

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