CINCINNATI - Tony Miliano's attempt at a tying field goal barely got off the ground when Eain Smith dived in from the side and swatted it away, keeping West Virginia in the Big East race.
Pretty much everybody else, too.
The Mountaineers rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit behind Geno Smith, then swatted away No. 23 Cincinnati's attempt to tie in the closing seconds Saturday for a 24-21 victory that left the conference race wide open.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith throws against Cincinnati on Saturday.
A loss would have knocked West Virginia (7-3 overall, 3-2 Big East) out of the title chase.
"As for the blocked field goal, one word: Pandemonium," Smith said. "We had our back against the wall and fought back. This game was crucial for us. It was win or go home."
The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) lost senior quarterback Zach Collaros to an ankle injury in the second quarter on a play that changed everything. He watched the rest of the game on crutches from the sideline with his right foot and ankle heavily wrapped.
Coach Butch Jones said Collaros would have tests to determine the severity of the injury.
Untested sophomore quarterback Munchie Legaux got the 48,152 fans at Paul Brown Stadium chanting his first name when he led the Bearcats to a pair of touchdowns for a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Legaux ran 7 yards for a score, and Isaiah Pead went 10 yards for his second touchdown.
"I said, 'You might have to finish the game off and be a hero,'" Pead said.
A late drive led by Smith and West Virginia's first blocked field goal since 2004 prevented Legaux from becoming a sensation.
Smith directed a 10-play drive that culminated in Shawne Alston's 1-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown with 8:52 left. Smith was 29 of 43 for 372 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
"It's about how much energy we played with," said coach Dana Holgorsen, who had threatened to leave players back in Morgantown if they didn't give a better effort in practice last week. "We didn't get down on ourselves. We talked about it this week. We talked about not hanging our heads on the sideline. Our talks weren't about X's and O's this week."
The Bearcats lost their senior quarterback in the second quarter, when Collaros retreated from the pass rush to extend a play and got tackled by end Bruce Irvin at the goal line. Collaros lost the ball and his right leg got twisted beneath him as he went down.
Julian Miller fell on the ball in the end zone for a 17-7 lead. Collaros lay on the ground, both hands on his forehead. He put no weight on the right leg as he was helped to a cart to leave the field for an exam.
That injury changed the whole Big East race. A win would have put the Bearcats in range of their third title in four years.
On came Legaux, who had thrown only seven passes all season. His second throw was picked off and Cincinnati's offense went nowhere the rest of the half, with West Virginia playing conservatively.
"On that first series, I was kind of nervous," said Legaux, who finished 10 of 21 for 144 yards and ran eight times for 89 yards. "After that first series, I got comfortable."
For the fourth straight game, Cincinnati overcame a deficit of at least nine points to take a second-half lead. This time, it didn't stand up.
The Mountaineers have been one of the conference's mainstays, finishing first or second in each of the last nine years. The Bearcats were on quite a surge, winning six in a row. They've even come up with their own victory song, dancing to "Get The Dub" each time they come away with a "W'' from a game.
They wore all-red uniforms Saturday for the first time since 1993, another indication of how much this one meant.
It started with big-play drama.
Pead weaved his way past defenders along the left sideline on a 40-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. Smith found Stedman Bailey beyond the coverage for a 59-yard touchdown pass that tied it. Pead had a 19-yard catch and 33-yard run that helped Cincinnati get to the 1-yard line, where Collaros was stopped inches short of the goal line on a fourth-down draw play.
Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal gave West Virginia its first lead at 10-7 early in the second quarter. On Cincinnati's next possession, the Bearcats lost their most indispensable player.