WISE, Va. - A mistake-prone West Liberty University football team proved to be its own worst enemy here Saturday afternoon as UVA-Wise scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to come from behind and stun the Hilltoppers, 24-13, at Carl Smith Stadium.
All three of the offensive scores by the Cavaliers (2-8 overall, 2-7 MEC) followed Hilltopper penalties that wiped out UVA-Wise punts and gave the ball back to the hosts. Cornerback Vernon Payne capped the scoring and put the game out of reach with a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown with less than four minutes remaining.
West Liberty (3-7, 3-5) flashed some offensive firepower in the first half, racking up 221 yards of total offense - more than WLU had managed in two of its last three games- and jogged into the locker room with a 13-10 lead.
The Hilltoppers scored on their first two possessions. Both drives muscled their way into the Cavaliers red zone but ran out of gas, forcing the visitors to settle for a pair of Bryan Arbes field goals and an early 6-0 lead.
Wise struggled to move the ball against the WLU defense but got a break late in the quarter when the Hilltoppers jumped offside on the Cavaliers' third punt of the game. The penalty gave the hosts a first down on the West Liberty 46 and UVA-Wise quickly took advantage. Cullen LaVoi found speedy WR James Long behind the Hilltopper secondary for a 46-yard touchdown on the very next snap and the Cavaliers took a 7-6 lead into the second quarter.
West Liberty answered with a well-orchestrated 12-play, 78-yard scoring march that ended when WR Dylan Potts beat double coverage in the end zone to haul in a 24-yard TD pass from Dylan Lagarde on a gutty fourth-and-2 call with 11:13 on the second quarter clock.
The Hilltopper defense followed with a three-and-out but a roughing the punter penalty gave the ball back to the Cavaliers. A facemask penalty moved the ball into WLU territory and set up a 30-yard Paul Melshan field goal that cut the lead to 13-10 with 5:34 remaining.
West Liberty dodged a bullet late in the half when Griff Yocum was tackled a couple of yards shy of the sticks on a fake punt from the WLU 32. UVA-Wise picked up a first down at the Hilltoppers 19 but safety Marquis Bradley made a leaping interception in the end zone to snuff the scoring threat.
The Cavaliers tightened the defensive screws in the second half, holding West Liberty to just one first down and 46 yards of offense until the final three minutes of the game. The Hilltopper defense was up to the challenge, however, and the game quickly devolved into a punting duel between UVA-Wise's Tyler Graham and Arbes, who took over Yocum's duties after Yocum was injured on the fake punt attempt.
The turning point of the game came late in the third quarter when another roughing the punter penalty gave the Cavaliers a first down at the WLU 39. LaVoi drove Wise down to the 9 before finding WR Terrence Younger on a quick slant for the go-ahead score at 13:41 of the fourth quarter.
The Hilltopper offense couldn't get anything going, punting the ball away on three consecutive three-and-outs, before getting it back at their own 30 with 4:04 to go.
A holding penalty and two straight incompletions left them facing third-and-19 from the 21. That's when Payne stepped in front of Lagarde's pass at the 34 and sprinted down the right sideline for the clinching score with just 3:29 remaining. West Liberty's final drive stalled at the Cavalier 34 with just over a minute remaining.
Lagarde completed 24 of 39 passes for 215 yards with one TD and one interception. Potts led all receivers with nine catches for 139 yards and a score. The Hilltoppers finished with 13 first downs and 97 rushing yards on 31 attempts for 312 yards of total offense.
LaVoi completed 17 of 32 passes for 149 yards with one TD and one interception. Long was his leading receiver with six catches for 81 yards. The Cavaliers had 19 first downs and ran for a season-high 142 yards on 38 carries to finish with 291 yards of total offense.
West Liberty closes out the 2013 season at home next week against Notre Dame (Ohio). Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Russek Field.