MORGANTOWN - Geno Smith always seems to pull West Virginia out of a rut.
Smith threw for 450 yards and four touchdowns in navigating No. 16 West Virginia through another slow start to beat Connecticut 43-16 in their Big East opener Saturday.
West Virginia (5-1 overall, 1-0 Big East) struggled to a 10-9 halftime lead before scoring 23 points in a 7:35 span of the third quarter to take control.
West Virginia wide reciever Stedman Bailey, center, carries the ball after a short reception as Connecticut's Jerome Junior (15) and Yawn Smallwood (33) give chase during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)
The Mountaineers struggled out of the gate for the fifth time in six games, mustering little early against a Connecticut defense that gave up 479 passing yards a week ago to Western Michigan. The 10 first-half points were the fewest for West Virginia this season.
"We may have been pressing (in the first half) because we all want to make plays," Smith said. "When we try to do too much, we make uncharacteristic mistakes. But when we just go out, have fun and just play the game and do what we're coached to do, the offense is dynamic and we can strike on anyone at any time."
During a timeout early in the third quarter, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen waved his hands while lecturing his skill-position players at the back of the bench.
"That's coach Holgorsen to the max," Smith said. "That's the way he handles things. He's that kind of coach and that's what we love about him. He's a straight-forward guy."
West Virginia responded - with a nudge from the defense.
Quarterback Johnny McEntee was driving UConn toward a go-ahead score midway through the third when he was hit on the run by cornerback Pat Miller. The ball popped loose, redshirt freshman linebacker Jewone Snow grabbed it and went 83 yards down the right sideline before being caught at the Connecticut 12.
"I just tried to score," said the 6-foot-3, 236-pound Snow. "But by the time I got to the 30, they started catching up with me."
Snow, the son of former Michigan defensive back Garland Rivers and a nephew of ex-Michigan State stars Percy Snow and Eric Snow, got his second start in place of Doug Rigg, who is out with a broken wrist.
Snow's return was the spark the Mountaineers needed. Smith, who completed 27 of 45 passes, found Tavon Austin on a post pattern in the back of the end zone two plays later for a 17-9 lead.
Connecticut (2-4, 0-1) got two first downs the rest of the game and managed 97 yards after halftime. McEntee was sacked five times - once for a safety - and was chased around the field all game. He finished 21 of 37 for 193 yards.
"That was a heck of a second half," Holgorsen said. "That was a dominating performance from our defense."
For West Virginia, the points kept coming.
After the Mountaineers got the ball back at their 16 on the next series, Smith hit Stedman Bailey with a pass at the West Virginia 36. Bailey sidestepped Ty-meer Brown and went the rest of the way untouched to put West Virginia ahead by double digits for good.
"That really took the wind out of our sails," Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni said.
Bruce Irvin sacked McEntee in the end zone for a safety late in the third. West Virginia got the ball back at midfield and scored in eight plays, with Brad Starks making a leaping catch over Dwayne Gratz for a 22-yard TD for a 33-9 lead.
Bailey later added a 27-yard scoring catch. He finished with seven catches for 178 yards, his fourth straight game of more than 100 receiving yards. Ivan McCartney had six catches for 131 yards.
Connecticut's only touchdown was a gift. Paul Millard relieved Smith in the fourth quarter and promptly threw an interception that Brown returned for a 48-yard score.
Heavy-underdog Connecticut was effective moving the ball early. The Huskies' held the ball for 11 minutes of the first quarter and their first four drives went into West Virginia territory.
"We focused on starting fast," Holgorsen said. "But UConn had something to do with that, too."
But Connecticut failed to find the end zone after three drives reached the West Virginia 20. Dave Teggart kicked first-half field goals of 40, 53 and 22 yards.
Connecticut's Byron Jones was called for holding on a second-quarter interception he made in the end zone. Three plays later, West Virginia freshman Dustin Garrison burst through the line for a 14-yard scoring run to put the Mountaineers ahead 10-6.
Garrison, who last week ran for 291 yards against Bowling Green, had 80 yards on 18 carries.