The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 23, 2012

Depends on who you ask

Mountaineer fans ready for time off, but players want to get back to it

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

— For West Virginia fans, the No. 25 Mountaineers’ off week comes at a perfect time. The WVU faithful could use a break after the emotional roller coaster they’ve been on over the last 10 days, watching their favorite team go from an undefeated national contender to a two-loss squad with more questions than answers in the blink of an eye.

But for the players and coaches, the break in the schedule serves only as another aggravation. The 5-2 Mountaineers would much rather get back out on the field and try to erase the painful memories of the losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State by a combined score of 104-28.

That’s not the way the schedule works, though, as WVU will have to wait until Nov. 3 to welcome fellow first-year Big 12 member TCU to Morgantown. And there’s plenty to do during that down time, beginning with finding a way to get back the confidence that the Mountaineers had after they left Austin, Texas, with a 5-0 record and a No. 5 national ranking on Oct. 7.

“There’s a mental aspect of reaching your team, and it’s always a challenge,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, now 15-5 as the head coach of the Mountaineers — ironically the same record former coach Bill Stewart had after his first 20 games. “We’ve got to get their confidence back. The only way you can to that is by bringing them in and talking to them, getting out in practice and working on specific things and then preparing as hard as I can to be successful. You’ve got to take them one at a time.

“Nobody’s happy about it — coaches, players and all the rest,” he continued of the team’s recent slide. “But my message to the team after the (55-14 home loss to KSU on Saturday) was that we need to grow up. We got beat by a mature football team, so we need to become a mature football team. We need to be mentally tough, physically tough and we need to improve ourselves every day. You’re not just going to wake up and fix things without hard work. We’ve got to get back to work and get our fundamentals better and our confidence back.”

One of the reminders Holgorsen plans on sharing with his team is that, although still unacceptable, the Mountaineers’ two recent losses came to a couple of quality football teams. The first came on the road against a Texas Tech squad that’s now 6-1 and No. 14 in the latest BCS standings. The other came against an undefeated Kansas State club that’s 7-0 and No. 3 in the BCS, behind only Alabama and Florida. It’s a little different than losing to teams like Connecticut and Syracuse in the Big East.

“We play in a good league,” said Holgorsen, who coached in the Big 12 at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State before coming to Morgantown, spending a year in the Big East and then making the move back to the Big 12. “I think everybody understands that. We got off to a hot start, but we had some issues that a pretty good Texas Tech team and a really good Kansas State team exposed. We have to get back to work. There are no magical words that can get those guys back on track.”

But WVU, Holgorsen said, won’t use the competition as an excuse. It can’t. With TCU (5-2), Oklahoma State (4-2), No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1), Iowa State (4-3) and Kansas (1-6) left on the schedule, things won’t get much easier.

“I’m pretty familiar with the Big 12 and knew what we were getting ourselves into,” said the second-year coach. “I think it’s going to take a whole season for everybody around here to kind of understand It.

“It’s been the same way for quite some time. There’s probably a little more parity now than there used to be. It’s an extremely deep and challenging conference. We fit in, but we need to be doing things to make sure we improve on all sides of the ball every week.”

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Injuries have played a major part in the Mountaineers’ struggles, as well, forcing WVU to play the bulk of its freshmen much sooner than it anticipated.

“Our depth is coming from a whole bunch of young kids, a whole bunch of freshmen,” said Holgorsen. “Depth is a question with every program, but when you can replace guys with older, mature backups, then you have a chance to win games.”

One injury that finally seems to be clearing up is the thigh bruise to starting running back Shawne Alston. After rushing for 185 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries against Marshall and JMU, the senior hasn’t seen the field again.

Reports surfaced Monday that he’s been cleared and will be ready to go against TCU, but Holgorsen — who treats injuries like war secrets — wasn’t willing to make any guarantees.

“I don’t know if he’s going to be able to play or not,” he said. “It’s going to take some practice time for him to earn some playing time and show us that he’s able to do that. It’s no different than anybody else on the team.”

But if Alston is able to produce, Holgorsen admitted it would be a boost.

“He makes us better,” he said of the physical running back, who is also one of the best blockers at the position. “He does a good job, brings maturity, brings toughness and brings a physical style of play that we’re lacking a little bit in the run game. He would be good to get back out there, but we have to make sure he’s able, in practice.”

— E-mail: chuffman@