By Cam Huffman
— If there’s one thing I love almost as much as sports, it’s food.
When you can’t find me in a gymnasium or on a field, you can usually check a restaurant or my kitchen. When my television is not tuned into ESPN — or PBS and Disney Junior, the life of a parent of an 11-month old — it’s on the Food Network.
So on Sunday afternoon, while watching an episode of “Chopped” and trying to digest what I had witnessed the afternoon before at Mountaineer Field — West Virginia’s 39-38 double-overtime loss to TCU — the two began to merge.
I began to compare the 2012 Mountaineer football campaign to a dining experience at a fine restaurant and realized there were problems with every aspect of the experience.
Following Saturday’s game, WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen spoke pretty glowingly about his team’s work on special teams.
“Special teams, I thought, played well, other than the snapping and kicking,” said the second-year head coach. “You guys thought we’ve been bad on special teams, but I noticed a lot of stuff from a coverage standpoint and a protection standpoint that I thought we really improved.”
Waiter: “How was your meal, sir?”
Diner: “It was perfect, except for the appetizer and dessert.”
Kicking and snapping are a pretty big part of special teams, and they certainly can’t be ignored.
Yes, Tavon Austin had a 76-yard punt return for a crucial score, sure WVU averaged a net of 43.2 yards per kickoff and the 24.5 kick return average was fairly strong, as well.
But the kicking and punting left a bad taste in the mouths of the Mountaineer fans.
Kicker Tyler Bitancurt missed three field goals and had another one blocked. If one of them goes through, the Mountaineers win and everybody goes home happy.
But whether it was his kicks or the protection in front of him, something went wrong on all three, including a very manageable 36-yarder in overtime that could have won the game if it hadn’t been blocked by an untouched edge rusher.
Then there’s the punting game. Bitancurt, who has recently taken over those duties, as well, becoming the third punter WVU has tried this season, averaged 39.5 yards per boot. That’s certainly not great, but it’s not terrible, either.
But there was one punt, or at least punt attempt, that drastically changed the game.
Ahead 24-14 with fewer than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, Bitancurt came on to punt it away.
The snap was a little low, but it was one he should have been able to control. Instead, he couldn’t find the handle and was unable to even eat the ball and take a sack. The ball bounced on the turf until Dominic Merka scooped it up and ran 15 yards into the end zone, turning a 10-point Mountaineer advantage into a 3-point WVU lead at the blink of an eye.
Joe DeForest, WVU’s first-year defensive coordinator, was brought in, in part, because of his reputation as a special teams guru. But four field goal misses and a botched punt attempt, things that shouldn’t be happening eight games into the season, cost the Mountaineers a win.
Holgorsen also didn’t have much bad to say about DeForest’s group.
“I can’t say enough about what our defensive staff has accomplished over the last two weeks,” he said in the moments following the game. “We stayed the course, and we got a lot of things corrected.”
He was right. The Mountaineer defense, which came into Saturday’s game ranked 114th out of 121 Football Bowl Subdivision football teams in total defense, was much better.
WVU forced TCU to punt nine times, two drives ended when the clock ran out and the WVU defense created three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception. The Mountaineers held the visitors to a 4-of-17 mark on third-down conversions, and they sacked Horned Frog quarterback Trevone Boykin three times and pressured him all afternoon.
When it comes to points, WVU’s stoppers gave up only 24 in regulation, the others coming off the fumble return on the mishandled punt. Ten of those points were a direct result of field position on drives that started on the WVU 31-yard line and the TCU 48.
But of the 405 yards of offense the Mountaineer defense allowed, 94 of them came on one extremely costly play.
Ahead 31-24 after Austin’s electrifying punt return, WVU had TCU backed up at its own 6-yard line with less than 1:30 on the fourth-quarter clock when it allowed Josh Boyce, the Horned Frogs’ top receiver, to somehow get free after he was forced out of bounds and came back in. Boykin found his receiver running all alone, and 94 yards later, with no safety back deep to stop him, Boyce was in the end zone and the game was tied.
“They knew the down and distance,” said Holgorsen of the play. “We just broke contain and the guy got out of the pocket. We lost track of the receiver, because he was out of bounds and the safety didn’t see him. Nobody’s happy about it, but, other than that, I thought we played real well, defensively.”
Waiter: “How was your meal, sir?”
Diner: “Other than the big black hair in my mashed potatoes, it was wonderful.”
Those kind of things just can’t happen. The defense was better, but all anybody will remember is the one play that kept WVU from putting the game away.
Fans love to criticize prevent defenses, but in some situations, that strategy is necessary. Ahead seven points with very little time on the clock, the defense’s No. 1 priority should be to keep everything in front of it. TCU couldn’t tie the game with a field goal, and the Horned Frogs probably didn’t have enough time, starting so deep in their own territory, to march down 10 yards at a time and find the tying score.
But WVU — for the third time this season, the other two coming just before halftime — gave up a big play with time running out that cost it what would have been an important Big 12 win.
Holgorsen wasn’t nearly as ready to stand up for the unit over which he has the most control. The WVU offense, considered one of the best in the country after scoring 260 points — 52 per game — during the Mountaineers’ 5-0 start, which had them up to No. 5 in the Associated Press Poll, has scored just 59 points in the last three games. Only 45 of them actually came from the offense, the other two touchdowns a result of Austin returns. Take those away, and WVU is scoring just 15 points per game.
The problem for Mountaineer fans is that they dined on filet mignon the first five weeks. They watched an offense that was almost impossible to stop and enjoyed the way the national media swarmed in to hand out awards for its greatness.
Now, Holgorsen and crew are suddenly serving up hamburgers, and that’s just not good enough from a chef (Holgorsen) who was supposed to be the best at serving up beef (offense).
“It falls on me,” Holgorsen admitted. “We’ll look at it and figure out what we’ve got to do to get better, offensively. What we’ve done the last three weeks is totally unacceptable.”
Holgorsen has been extremely defensive about the abilities of his staff in recent weeks. More than once, he’s fired back in response to a question with, “We didn’t forget how to coach.”
Diner: “This meal wasn’t nearly as good as the one we had last time.”
Waiter: “Well, our chefs didn’t suddenly forget how to cook.”
No, Holgorsen and his staff probably didn’t lose everything they’ve learned throughout long careers in the coaching profession in the span of a month, but something is clearly wrong.
The competition, I admit, has been better, but that doesn’t explain why Geno Smith went from looking like a Heisman Trophy runaway to what Holgorsen said was “worst he’s been since he’s been here.” It doesn’t explain why first downs are more difficult to find than a Pitt hat in the Morgantown Mall and it certainly doesn’t provide an explanation for why a team that was considered a legitimate national championship contender when it knocked off Texas on Oct. 6 is now wondering if it can even find enough wins to be bowl eligible.
The customer is always supposed to be right, and they all seem to agree that something is wrong in the kitchen. It’s now up to the head chef to figure out what’s causing the problem, and fast. If he doesn’t, his program may appear on “Restaurant Impossible,” a show to help save failing restaurants, much sooner than he ever expected.