It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
And a player that didn’t even start the game for West Virginia might have made the most important play in the closing moments of the win over Iowa State.
Redshirt sophomore Hakeem Bailey opened the season as the starter for the Mountaineers at cornerback but lost his job after the second game serving as a body off the bench. However, three games in a row he had been called upon to step in and provide valuable snaps.
The same was true against Iowa State after starter Mike Daniels left the game with an injury, it was Bailey again that was called into the game. And it didn’t start well.
The Cyclones consistently threw at Bailey and he drew a pair of pass-interference penalties to extend drives, along with a face-mask. That would be enough for some but Bailey didn’t quit.
And down the stretch made a game-defining play.
“That was the play of the game and that could have cost us,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said.
The play was on what would turn out to be the final drive of the game for the Cyclones, trailing 20-16 with just over three-minutes left in the game. With the ball at their own 37-yard line, Iowa State lined up with two receivers to the boundary with inside receiver Trever Ryen taking off down the sideline.
On the play, the safety was supposed to have responsibility but with two wide receivers in the same area, Ryen would be running free until Bailey recognized and trailed. Once the ball was in the air, Bailey was able to track down the wide receiver as the ball hit his hands and force the ball loose on what would have been a throw inside the 25-yard line of the Mountaineers.
The last line of defense, the embattled Bailey made the play.
“He saw it, recognized it, recovered and knocked the ball out,” Gibson said.
One of the top cornerbacks for West Virginia throughout the spring and fall camp after arriving in January, it’s taken some time for Bailey to adjust to the college level but his spirits have never wavered. The sophomore followed up his break up on Ryen with another on the following play to step up a 4th and 7 where the Mountaineers defense would hold and the offense would run out the clock.
“We talked about taking that guy through and he was able to make a big play and probably saved the game for us,” cornerbacks coach Doug Belk said.
But that game is done.
Where does this leave Bailey and the cornerback spot moving forward?
Well, Belk believes his unit continues to show steps every week and Bailey continues to compete by getting extra work in by watching film and executing.
Even though he isn’t a set starter, Bailey has embraced the team role and doing whatever he needs to do.
“The maturation and development is coming full circle. He’s getting in a groove with the system and the players as well as being a Big 12 player,” Belk said.
However, Bailey and the cornerbacks have no time to relish in prior successes because the Mountaineers will face another challenge in a Kansas State team that will test a defensive back with their ability to effectively use run-pass-options.
The key for the Mountaineers will be a combination of eye-discipline, alignment and assignment. That means understanding what plays they’re going to see based on the formation and avoid putting their eyes in the backfield when they’re placed in man coverage.
That also means being more physical on the perimeter and tackling better.
“We have to keep things in front of us,” Belk said.