But self-inflicted wounds -- in the form of a pair of personal foul penalties -- moved the Cyclones to the West Virginia 7-yard line with a chance to tie things up.
Finally, though, the defense made a game-sealing play. Safety Darwin Cook, who had been limited in recent weeks to due to what he described as a nerve injury in his leg, forced ISU fullback Jeff Woody to fumble. Fellow safety Karl Joseph recovered to end the threat.
"We hung in there and made enough plays to win the game," WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. "The turnover at the end of the game was big ... we came up with enough to win the game. I'm proud that our guys kept fighting."
The Mountaineer offense, which had previously scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to give the team its 31-24 advantage, made the plays necessary to run out the clock. Running back Shawne Alston -- who saw his most extensive action since suffering a severe thigh bruise in the second game of the season -- gained three yards on a third-and-3 play to just barely move the chains.
Offensive Player of the Game
74 rushing yards
1 punt return
42 punt return yards
2 kick returns
46 kick return yards
Another run of 10 yards from Tavon Austin, who was again at his explosive best, was enough to end the game. West Virginia (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) was able to use the victory formation for the first time in a month and a half, snapping a five-game losing streak that dated back to an Oct. 6 win at Texas.
"The last few weeks have been rough. We could be sitting here with a much better record if it weren't for one play here or one play there," Holgorsen said. The guys were determined to get a win."
"I think we handled [adversity] well all year," quarterback Geno Smith added. "We had a couple circumstances where the ball didn't bounce our way, and we would make some boneheaded mistakes or not make enough plays to win it in the end ... It's just about coming out and executing. We made enough plays in the end to win it."
It was Austin who set up that win in the first place, making one explosive play on offense and setting up another score on special teams.
With the Mountaineers trailing 21-20 in the early stages of the third quarter, Iowa State had to punt after a three-and-out. Austin fielded the kick and, in trademark fashion, weaved his way through potential tacklers and broke into the open field. He scored on the play, but the end of the return was called back for a holding penalty on WVU's K.J. Dillon.
Defensive Player of the Game
13 total tackles
1 tackle for loss
1 fumble recovery
Still, though, Austin's return allowed the offense to start at Iowa State's 33-yard line. West Virginia drove to the 18 before stalling, and kicker Tyler Bitancurt bounced a 35-yard field goal in off an upright -- the senior's third make on four tries in the game.
The Cyclones (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) answered, though. Edwin Arceo made a 49-yard kick of his own to give ISU a tenuous 24-23 lead entering the final minutes.
It didn't last. On the first play of the Mountaineers' ensuing drive, WVU ran its jet sweep "touch pass" to Austin, who was quickly in the second level, got effective blocks from his receivers downfield and took off for a 75-yard touchdown reception.
West Virginia went for a 2-point conversion. Again, the ball was in Austin's hands, and again WVU was successful, as he outran defenders to the edge and converted.
"He did what he's done all year," ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. "He's a great football player, and if you ask some of the best players and coaches in this league, they'll tell you the same thing. He's special, and they're fortunate to have him on their roster."
It wasn't exactly a perfect day for the Mountaineers' maligned defense, but it certainly wasn't that unit's worst effort of the season. Statistically the nation's worst passing defense, WVU held Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson to only 162 yards on 13-of-31 passing. Richardson did add three touchdown throws and 119 rushing yards.
"They give a lot of different angles and pressures, and they did a nice job of covering us," Rhoads said of the Mountaineer defense.
Meanwhile, West Virginia's own offense showed that its improved performances of recent weeks weren't a fluke. The Mountaineers racked up 475 yards of offense, including 239 rushing yards. Alston, as close to completely healthy as he has been since the beginning weeks of the season, carried 19 times for a career-high 130 yards.
Austin added another 83 yards on the ground to go with 99 receiving yards and a touchdown.
With the win, WVU is now bowl eligible heading into its regular season finale against Kansas. A win in the Senior Day game against the Jayhawks may be enough to send the Mountaineers to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego; a loss would likely mean a trip to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York City.