By Cam Huffman
— What a difference a couple of weeks can make.
Two weeks ago, West Virginia was on top of the college football world. The Mountaineers, coming off a win at Texas in front of the biggest crowd a WVU football team had ever seen, were 5-0, ranked No. 5 in the country, and quarterback Geno Smith was a runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
Now, WVU (5-2) is hanging on at No. 25 in the latest Associated Press Poll, and Smith, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in the last two games, after tossing 24 through the first five, has fallen back in the pack for college football’s biggest award.
A closer look into the lopsided losses against Texas Tech and Kansas State the last two weeks reveals that the defeats weren’t just bad, they were historically poor.
n The 55-14 loss to the Wildcats was the second-most lopsided defeat in the history of Mountaineer Field. In 1986, Don Nehlen’s Mountaineers fell to No. 1 Miami — quarterbacked by Vinny Testaverde and with Michael Irvin at wide receiver — 58-14. It was the third-worst loss in any home game, behind that Miami contest and WVU’s first-ever football game in 1891, a 72-0 loss to Washington & Jefferson.
n WVU has given up 279 points in its first seven games. It’s on pace to allow more points than any team in Mountaineer history. The most a WVU team has ever allowed in a single season is 364 in just 11 games in 1978 under Frank Cignetti. This year’s club is on pace to allow 438 points through 11 games and 478 by the time the 12-game season is complete.
By comparison, the 1996 WVU defense — with current assistant Steve Dunlap serving as defensive coordinator — gave up 156 points in 12 games. More recently, Jeff Casteel’s 2010 squad allowed 176 points in 13 games.
n WVU’s current two-game stretch is the fourth-worst in WVU history, as the Mountaineers lost by a combined 76 points to Texas Tech and Kansas State.
The worst back-to-back stretch came in 1960, when Gene Corum’s Mountaineers lost 42-0 at Pitt on Oct. 15 and then followed that up with a 45-0 loss to Syracuse at home on Oct. 22 for a combined 87-point spread.
In 1950, Art “Pappy” Lewis’ team lost 41-0 to Maryland and then 48-7 to Texas Western for a combined 82 points. The only other two-game stretch worse than the one WVU just completed came in 1965, again under Corum. WVU lost to Virginia 44-6 to begin that skid and followed it up with a 44-6 loss to Penn State, for a combined 79 points.
n WVU’s previously high-powered offense has scored just 21 points in the last four quarters — the other touchdown coming on Tavon Austin’s 100-yard kickoff return. That’s the worst two-game production in Dana Holgorsen’s career as both a head coach and offensive coordinator.
The previous worst output came in 2006 at Texas Tech, when Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator under Mike Leach. That team scored 27 points in two games, a 38-21 loss to Missouri and a 30-6 loss to Colorado.
Holgorsen, though considered the offensive coordinator, wasn’t calling the plays on his own. He was the co-coordinator with Sonny Dykes, and Leach still called many of the plays on his own.
Since going to Houston in 2008, Holgorsen has been the main play-caller in each of the last five seasons. His previous low production over that stretch came last year in Morgantown when WVU scored “only” 45 points over a two-game stretch in a 24-21 win over Cincinnati and a 21-20 victory over Pitt.
Both Holgorsen and DeForest readily admitted after Saturday night’s loss that there’s a major problem, but neither seemed to immediately have answers of how to solve it.
“We ran 14 plays and had the ball three times in the first half,” said Holgorsen of the offensive struggles. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm. But we didn’t move the ball. There’s a lot of reasons for that. It all starts with blocking. We didn’t block very well. Our receivers didn’t get open, and we didn’t make good throws.
“There are some problems there. We’ll address them and try to fix them. We’re not making any excuses, and we’re going to get back to work.”
Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest’s response to the defensive woes wasn’t much different.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “I have to do a better job as a coach, and we have to do a better job as a team. We have to make sure that they’re in the right place at the right time, that we understand the scheme and that we understand the speed of the game. Right now we’re not getting the job done. (Opponents) can’t score every time they touch the ball.”
But DeForest isn’t giving up.
“Everything’s correctable,” he said. “But they have to buy in. You want somebody to step up and grab the team and say, ‘follow me.’ We don’t have that on defense, and until we do, we’re going to struggle. You can’t always lead as a coach; you have to have somebody from within.
“I have to do a better job of putting them in situations, but when they’re in those situations, they have to make a play. But we’re going to get better. As long as I’m representing West Virginia, I’m going to make it right. If I have to stay here all night, I’ll do it.”
A TEST FOR HOLGORSEN?
WVU’s second-year head coach is a great offensive mind. Despite the results the last two weeks, his ability to put up points and rack up yardage has been proven over and over in his career. As he said in the postgame Saturday, he didn’t suddenly forget how to coach offense. As stagnant as they’ve been the last two weeks, the Mountaineers will score points again.
But being a head coach is a lot different than being an offensive coordinator. And we might learn what type of head coach Holgorsen is over the next few weeks.
The morale of the WVU team is obviously low. There’s bound to be some finger pointing, no matter how much the coaches and leaders try to warn against it. With a difficult schedule ahead — beginning in two weeks with TCU’s visit to Morgantown and with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas still on the schedule — the 2012 Mountaineers are at a crossroads.
A good head coach is able to rally his team and turn things around at a point like this. He knows how to hold his team together, fix the mistakes and respond to adversity. Will Holgorsen be able to do that with the Mountaineers?
Holgorsen may also face one of the difficult responsibilities of being a head coach in the coming months or years. His new defensive coordinator, DeForest, isn’t getting the job done so far. I’m not claiming its time to show him the door, but if things don’t improve soon, there has to be a change.
Bill Stewart faced a similar situation during his tenure, dealing with his offensive coordinator, Jeff Mullen, whom he hired away from Wake Forest. WVU’s high-powered offense under Stewart’s predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, suddenly stalled with Mullen in charge. Stewart stuck by him, and his refusal to make a change likely played a part in athletic director Oliver Luck’s decision to make a move at the top and bring in Holgorsen.
DeForest and Holgorsen are friends, but sometimes a head coach has to make a decision for the betterment of the program. If WVU’s defense doesn’t get better — and it’s certainly shown no improvement through seven games — Holgorsen isn’t going to be forced to make a tough call. And his ability to handle the situation may well define his time as the man in charge.
— E-mail: chuffman@