By Cam Huffman
A couple of months ago, the matchup with Iowa State was supposed to be a “trap game” for the West Virginia football team, one of those contests the Mountaineers should win but could get interesting if WVU didn’t give it its full attention.
Picked second in the Big 12, the Mountaineers jumped out to a fast 5-0 start to rise to No. 5 in the Associated Press Poll after a win on the road at Texas. ISU, meanwhile, lost three of its first four conference games and was considered one of the Big 12’s bottom teams.
WVU, Mountaineer fans thought, would be a heavy favorite against the Cyclones, but they better be careful, considering ISU shocked Oklahoma State in 2011 to end the Cowboys’ national championship hopes.
But when the Mountaineers (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) take the field in Ames, Iowa, today at 3:30 p.m. on ABC, for their first-ever meeting with the Cyclones (6-5, 3-5 Big 12), the reality is a much different one.
WVU isn’t playing to avoid a letdown. It’s playing to end a five-game losing streak and become bowl eligible. The Mountaineers are favored, but only by a point.
ISU is coming off a convincing 51-23 road win at Kansas, a victory that clinched a .500 season and a bowl game. The Cyclones are simply trying to put the icing on their postseason cake.
“This is the eighth team in a row that has either been ranked or close to ranked,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, pointing out the challenges in this year’s schedule, the Mountaineers’ first in the Big 12. ISU was ranked No. 24 in the BCS on Oct. 14 with a 4-2 record.
“I think it is eight in a row. You lose track. Every Big 12 team that we have played is going to go to a bowl game. That probably tells you something right there.”
WVU is still locked in its first five-game skid since 1986, but it’s not like the Mountaineers haven’t been competitive. The first loss, on the road at Texas Tech, wasn’t really close, a 49-14 Red Raider victory, and WVU looked completely unprepared in a 55-14 home loss to Kansas State a week later.
But following an off week, the Mountaineers battled TCU, falling one point short when the Horned Frogs successfully converted a 2-point play in the second overtime to win 39-38.
A week later, WVU was within one score of Oklahoma State on the road late in the second half, before special teams mistakes allowed the Cowboys to pull away for a 55-34 victory.
Then last week, the Moutaineers held a fourth-quarter lead against No. 13 Oklahoma at home but couldn’t hold on when the Sooners scored on a fourth-down play with less than a minute on the clock to win 50-49.
“All the games that we’ve lost, the guys are playing and working hard in order to try and get a win,” said senior defensive lineman Jorge Wright. “The ball hasn’t always bounced our way. It was pretty much the same last year in terms of effort, but we are not having the same luck.
“It’s frustrating,” he continued. “The nail-biters, when you lose by one point or in overtime, are especially bad, because you go home and wonder if you could have done something differently on a play. You always beat yourself up more when you lose like that.”
But quarterback Geno Smith, who stands third in the country with 336 passing yards per game, expects his team to avoid its own Black Friday by shaking off the frustration and taking the field to play.
“We are strong-willed around here,” said the senior signal caller. “We have the right leadership in place, and we have the right amount of effort.
“We all want to win very badly. Guys are not going to hang their heads. We understand that we are in a rough stretch, but we know the only way to pull out of it is to win games.”
The Mountaineers may be aided by matchups this week.
One of the main concerns during the losing streak has been pass defense, where WVU ranks dead last among 120 FBS teams, allowing 364.6 yards per game through the air.
Throwing the football is not the strength of an ISU team that ranks 72nd nationally in that category, throwing for only a little more than 222 yards per game. The Cyclones prefer to control the football, eat clock and try to win with defense.
Head coach Paul Rhoads’ team is third in the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing only 22.6 points per game. They’ve never given up more than 35, but, aside from the 51 points against Kansas, the Cyclones’ top offensive outburst was 38 points in the season opener against Tulsa.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.