MANHATTAN (AP) — Will Grier scrambled to his right and then retreated to his left, time ticking off the clock in the first half and No. 23 West Virginia seemingly content to take a one-point lead over Kansas State into halftime.
Then Grier unloaded a pass toward the end zone.
Ka’Raun White never had to move to haul in his second touchdown reception.
The half-ending score, after a crippling interception thrown by Skylar Thompson, gave the Mountaineers a lift going into the break. And their defense did the rest in the second half, holding on to escape with a 28-23 victory and their Big 12 title hopes intact.
“It was a weird game,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I don’t quite know how we won it other than our defense playing their tail off. The offense was hot and cold. But we made some big plays.”
Few bigger than that 30-yard TD pass for a 28-20 halftime lead.
Grier finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns passing for the Mountaineers (7-3, 5-2), while White had eight catches for 168 yards. David Sills V had the other two TD receptions, one a tip-toe job in the corner of the end zone, and Justin Crawford added 113 yards on the ground.
“It was a big game,” Mountaineers linebacker David Long said, “and they were going to make plays.”
Indeed, the Wildcats closed to 28-23 on Matt McCrane’s field goal early in the fourth quarter, but an offense down to its third-string QB in Thompson couldn’t get all the way back.
Thompson threw for 159 yards with two interceptions in his first career start for the Wildcats (5-5, 3-4), who still need a win to become bowl-eligible for the eighth consecutive year. Dalvin Warmack added 96 yards rushing and bruising fullback Winston Dimel reached the end zone twice.
“It was in our hands,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “It was ours to win or lose.”
The nip-and-tuck game was indicative of the series: The last three meetings had been decided by eight points total, including the Mountaineers’ 17-16 comeback win in Morgantown last year.
They tried to fumble this one away early, coughing it up twice in the damp, cold weather. Grier also threw a pair of first-half interceptions, one of which was returned inside their 5.
But Kansas State kept stumbling while trying to take advantage of the mistakes.
The Wildcats had to settle for a pair of early field goals, which West Virginia wiped out with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Grier to White, and Sills added his two TD catches to extend the lead.
Still, Kansas State got within 21-20 and had the ball in the closing seconds of the first half when Thompson was picked off on a poorly designed screen play. West Virginia had time for one play, and Grier scrambled long enough to find White in the end zone.
“Will is very good at extending plays,” Sills said. “He always keeps his eyes downfield. He can run, but when he scrambles he is looking to throw downfield. It resulted in a lot of big plays.”
The Wildcats’ defense stiffened in the second half, but their offense still couldn’t do much. McCrane missed a 32-yard field goal — Snyder argued in vain that it went through the uprights — before hitting from 29 yards to make it 28-23 with 12:44 to go.
Kansas State was trying to take the lead when Thompson was picked off by Kenny Robinson deep in West Virginia territory. And even though the Wildcats’ defense forced a quick punt, the turnover flipped the field with about 6 minutes remaining, emboldening the Mountaineers’ defense.
They forced a punt of their own, and Grier converted on fourth down with 2:29 left, allowing West Virginia to run out the clock at the Kansas State goal line.
“This one will hurt us for a while,” said McCrane, who broke Martin Gramatica’s school record of 54 career field goals. “We know we need to get some wins.”
West Virginia overcame four turnovers and some uncharacteristic dropped passes. Gary Jennings was a big part of the success, catching 13 passes for 115 yards as the Wildcats bottled up the run early and tried to take White and Sills away in the passing game.
Kansas State’s defense, which had surrendered at least 400 yards passing in three straight games, was good enough to keep it close. But the offense struggled behind an inexperienced quarterback who made several poor decisions and often held onto the ball too long.