By Cam Huffman
Welcome to the Big 12. West Virginia thought it received its official acceptance to its new league when it played its first conference game at home against Baylor. If not then, certainly the Mountaineers understood what the Big 12 was going to be like after hitting the road for the first time to play Texas.
But although it wasn’t one of the games Mountaineer fans had circled on their calendars, WVU really gained a feel for life in the Big 12 Saturday on the road at Texas Tech.
The warnings were all there. All offseason, Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen, who knows all about life in the Big 12, advised players and fans that his team could not play a bad game against anybody in the conference and still come away with a win. Rutgers and Connecticut were no longer on the schedule. The analysts agreed, and even opposing coaches cautioned the Mountaineers when they asked what they should expect this season.
But all the talk in the world doesn’t get the message across like experience. After Saturday’s 49-14 loss to Texas Tech — a team that was supposed to be somewhere in the middle of the conference pack — WVU learned the hard way exactly what happens when you leave your A-game behind in the Big 12.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
First, throw away the excuses. Saturday’s loss had nothing to do with a “trap game.” When seemingly every television and radio analyst is picking the game as an upset, when Vegas has the country’s No. 5 team as just a 3.5-point favorite against an unranked team and when a coach spends all week talking about avoiding the “trap,” his team can’t really claim it was overlooking its opponent. WVU knew what to expect, and it still wasn’t ready to play.
Don’t use the back-to-back trips to Texas, either. Holgorsen said himself that the plane trip wasn’t even three hours long — not much different than any road journey. In fact, it was much shorter than the bus ride the Mountaineers took to Cincinnati in 2011. If WVU wants to play in the Big 12, road trips are part of it. Get used to it.
Don’t hang the loss entirely on the defense, either. Sure Texas Tech’s wide receivers looked like dogs that had been turned loose in an open pasture, at times, quarterback Seth Doege had time to send out a thank you letter to every fan in attendance while sitting in the pocket and I’ve seen better tackling in a flag football game.
But the offense — yes, that “Air Raid” attack you’ve heard so much about — ended four quarters with all of 14 points, and seven of them were a gift at the end of the game.
Geno Smith was just off. It was obvious on the opening drive when balls were sailing high, skidding into the dirt and missing the mark. After falling behind early, he tried to force some throws, instead of just taking what the defense was giving him. He missed some chances to pick up some yards on the ground, trying to make up the deficit in big chunks instead of just following the game plan that has worked so well all year.
But Smith didn’t get much help, either. The WVU offensive line allowed Texas Tech to get way too much pressure on its quarterback, without even blitzing much, and when Stedman Bailey went to the sidelines with an injury, Ivan McCartney dropped some passes that probably should have been caught.
Not much went right on offense, and, if you’re keeping score at home, not much went right for the crew of the Titanic, either.
The inability to score points, or even pick up first downs, meant that the defense was on the field more and more, which meant more and more Texas Tech points, a steady buildup of confidence and a momentum shift that had the homecoming crowd rocking.
The WVU coaches deserve some blame, as well. Holgorsen twice went for fourth downs in the opening quarter when he could have attempted field goals to try to get some points on the board, slow down the Red Raider momentum and give the Mountaineer sideline something to cheer. Holgorsen has seen his offense succeed so many times, he’s starting to believe that it can never be stopped, and that sometimes leads to bad game management.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Despite what you might read on Facebook, or on the faces of WVU fans, the Mountaineers didn’t lose everything Saturday night in Lubbock, Texas. Most of their goals are still in front of them.
WVU probably isn’t going to play for a national title. A one-loss team can find its way into the BCS Championship under certain circumstances — but not when it’s a 35-point defeat at the hands of an unranked team at this time of the year.
But as hard as it is to believe after what we witnessed Saturday, the Mountaineers are still very much in the running for the Big 12 championship. The way the league is shaping up so far, it’s more than realistic to envision the champion having one or two league losses. WVU has very little room for error against a difficult schedule the rest of the way, but a trip to the Fiesta Bowl is not off the table.
Easy now. You’re holding a newspaper. I can’t hear you when you yell at me.
But you’re right. If the Mountaineers play like they did Saturday, they’ll be lucky to be going against one of their former conference mates in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl this December.
But Holgorsen’s offense did not suddenly dry up. Coaches haven’t figured it out. There is a reason why its been on every highlight reel this season and why Smith was at the top of everybody’s Heisman Trophy list coming into the weekend.
It was simply a bad performance, and almost every team has one at one time or another.
What matters is how WVU responds. That’s what will define the 2012 season. And if Smith is the type of leader that he’s been made out to be, the Mountaineers’ response could be fun to watch.
So step back from the ledge, take your tickets off of eBay and stay tuned. You wanted in the Big 12, and this is what life there is like. It doesn’t always follow a script, but it never fails to entertain.