AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia safety Karl Joseph made sure that quarterback Skyler Howard’s first home start was a pleasant one.
Joseph interrupted Georgia Southern’s rhythm by himself with three interceptions and a fumble recovery, and the Mountaineers beat the Eagles 44-0 on Saturday night.
Joseph’s three interceptions were the most for a West Virginia player since Vann Washington had three against Louisiana Tech in 1994. And it marked the first time in 12 seasons that West Virginia had four interceptions in a game.
“We’ve got something to build on,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “Our defense was pretty motivated. Our leadership that we have on that side of the ball is showing.”
Howard threw two touchdown passes and West Virginia outgained Georgia Southern 544 yards to 244 in winning its home opener for the 12th consecutive season. Howard completed 16 of 25 passes for 359 yards.
Freshman Jovon Durante and sophomore Shelton Gibson were stellar in their first starts at wide receiver after replacing playmakers Kevin White and Mario Alford, who combined for nearly 2,400 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns in 2014.
Gibson turned around to catch an underthrown ball from Howard for a 26-yard score late in the third quarter. He had three receptions for 130 yards. Durante’s first career catch was a 41-yard TD grab on West Virginia’s opening series. He finished with three catches for 121 yards.
But West Virginia didn’t take full control until the second half, when it scored four touchdowns after having trouble finding the end zone early in the game.
In the first quarter, the Mountaineers couldn’t convert on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Southern 17 when Wendell Smallwood was tackled for a loss.
West Virginia settled for three short field goals from Josh Lambert after Howard threw incompletions on three other first-half drives inside the 20, including two inside the 10.
And West Virginia couldn’t take advantage when Georgia Southern was stuffed on fourth-and-1 from its 29 in the second quarter. On the next play, Howard was called for intentional grounding when his protection broke down, and the Mountaineers ended up punting.
“We’ve got to continue to focus on finishing drives for touchdowns,” Holgorsen said. “We sputtered at times. We’ve got to continue to get better. We’re not where we need to be offensively right now.”
West Virginia finally broke its red-zone TD drought in the third quarter.
Joseph’s second interception gave West Virginia the ball at the Georgia Southern 28. Howard then threw 17 yards to Daikiel Shorts, and Rushel Shell followed with a 6-yard scoring run for a 23-0 lead.
Joseph’s third interception at the West Virginia 15 late in the third quarter stopped Georgia Southern’s greatest scoring threat. Smallwood finished the ensuing 85-yard drive with a 19-yard run for a 37-0 lead.
“When we threw the ball on a few occasions, we just couldn’t get away from them,” said Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz. “They have a tremendous secondary, and they covered us like loops.”
Georgia Southern lost to North Carolina State and Georgia Tech by a combined five points on the road last season. But the Eagles were never in this one against a major-conference opponent. The Mountaineers had the Eagles’ triple-option running game figured out from the start.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d beat them 44-0, because of what they do offensively,” Holgorsen said.
Georgia Southern was limited to 195 rushing yards, a far cry from the 381 it averaged last season. Matt Breida, who averaged 8.7 yards per rush and gained 1,485 yards a year ago, was limited to 70 yards on 17 carries.