The last time West Virginia’s football team was forced to stay at home during bowl season, Don Nehlen was freshly retired, there were no suites in the end zone at Mountaineer Field, Dana Holgorsen was coaching wide receivers at Texas Tech and Rich Rodriguez was Mountaineer fans’ favorite native son, having returned home to coach at his alma mater.
The 2001 season, Rodriguez’s first as the WVU head coach after a stint as Clemson’s offensive coordinator, saw the Mountaineers end at 3-8, far from a postseason spot.
The very next season, though, Rodriguez’s Mountaineers won six of their last seven games to finish 9-4 and earn a spot in the Continental Tire Bowl against Virginia.
That appearance started a run of 11 straight bowl appearances for WVU, which has played everywhere from New York to Arizona and on dates from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4 during that stretch, winning five of those 11, including a Sugar Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl and an Orange Bowl.
Now at 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the Big 12 heading into today’s 3:45 p.m. game at Kansas State (2-4, 0-3 Big 12) the Mountaineers are in desperate need of a victory if they hope to run that streak to a dozen. Kansas and Iowa State, the two bottom teams in the league, are still left on the schedule, but so are TCU and Texas.
On paper, the Wildcats are as beatable as anybody in the Big 12.
“It’s Kansas State right now,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, refusing to look too far into the future. “A bowl game is important, but a fourth win is a little more important at this point. We haven’t got to the point where I feel like we need to talk about motivation to win.
“I think the motivation to win is there. If you’re not able to execute things, then you’re not going to win. So we’re continuing to focus on being able to execute better. Obviously, going to a bowl game is one of our goals that we have as a program, and obviously we want to meet that goal.”
Winning at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, against the coach for whom the stadium is named, might be a little more difficult than it initially appears.
For starters, KSU’s record could be a little deceiving. The Wildcats’ last three games came against Texas, No. 21 Oklahoma State and No. 15 Baylor, and they were in all three of those contests in the fourth quarter. The three losses came by a total of 24 points.
KSU has also had an extra week to prepare for the Mountaineers, and it’s 24-6 at home since Snyder’s return for his second stint with the Wildcats in 2009.
WVU, on the other hand, has dropped six of its last seven games away from Mountaineer Field.
“We will have to come out from the start (to the) finish,” said junior running back Dreamius Smith, who has rushed for 371 yards and four touchdowns in his first year at WVU as a junior college transfer. “We cannot take any plays off, and (we have to) keep the same energy we have in the first quarter. We need to keep executing and move the ball downfield for touchdowns.”
Junior Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, who has thrown for 724 yards and three touchdowns this season, will make his fourth straight start for the Mountaineers, finally bringing some stability to that position.
KSU has also had some questions at quarterback and has used a two-quarterback approach for most of the season. Junior Jake Waters, who’s the better passer of the two, will likely start, but sophomore Daniel Sams, the team’s leading rusher, has seen the most action in recent weeks.
“I think we know what to expect,” said WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who compared the challenge to the one his team overcame when it upset No. 11 Oklahoma State earlier this season. “One has the strengths to run the ball, while the other throws it effectively. We don’t prepare any differently in what we did with Oklahoma State with (J.W.) Walsh and (Clint) Chelf. There’s a lot of similarities, I would say.”
“It’s something I look forward to, honestly,” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Shaq Rowell. “I get tired of pass rushing and trying to get those quarterbacks. This is smash-mouth football. They’re going to pound the ball every play. They aren’t going no-huddle, and they’ll take their time with 4 yards a play and get first downs that way.”
Today’s game will be televised live on Fox Sports 1.
— E-mail: chuffman