By Cam Huffman
It’s often said that things are never as good or as bad as they seem, but that may not be the case with the West Virginia University football program.
Not only are things just as bad as they seem after a 38-14 loss to Syracuse that ended a disappointing 7-6 season for the Mountaineers, but they may actually be worse than many realize.
It seems simple. WVU’s defense — which has to be considered the worst in Mountaineer history and was among the worst in the nation this season — was horrible. Bring in some junior college talent, switch some coaching responsibilities and everything is fixed, right?
The problem is that such a plan just isn’t realistic.
The problems with WVU’s defense are many, and they won’t be fixed overnight. If it was just the pass defense, which ranked 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams this season, it may be fixable with a new defensive backs coach and some junior college studs. But as the Mountaineers proved in allowing an average Syracuse rushing attack to gain 369 yards on the sloppy turf in Yankee Stadium during Saturday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, it’s not just the pass defense that’s the concern.
I expect new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to make some progress when he has an entire offseason, instead of just a few weeks, but the Mountaineer defense is so terrible at this point, it could make major strides and still be bad in 2013.
But the bigger concern for the WVU program is that it’s not just the defense that has problems.
Offense — Holgorsen’s high-flying, high-tempo offense, considered by many to be among the country’s best, was just that, at times. The problem is that at other times it played hide-and-go-seek and played it well.
WVU averaged 39.5 points and 500 yards per game. It was among the country’s leaders in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and, at times, it ran the ball very effectively, as well.
But numbers can be a little deceiving. In six games — Marshall, James Madison, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas — WVU averaged 56.2 points and 652.7 yards of offense per game. In the other seven games — Maryland, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Syracuse — WVU averaged 25.1 points and 373 yards per outing. In three of those games — Texas Tech, Kansas State and Syracuse — the Mountaineers scored just 14 points.
The huge numbers put up in a handful of contests skewed the averages and made the WVU offense look better than it actually proved to be over the long haul. In the majority of games this year, the Mountaineer offense was somewhat average, and that’s with three of the best offensive players — Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin — on the field at the same time. What would the offense have looked like without those three? We may find out in 2013.
The offense was explosive, at times, but consistency was a major issue. From game to game, you just didn’t know what you were going to get, and it’s tough to win games when that’s the case.
Special teams — WVU was good in the return game — thanks mainly to Austin — and kickoffs were decent for most of the year. But when it came to punts, field goals and even extra points, Mountaineer fans had to close their eyes and hold their breath.
Tyler Bitancurt, Corey Smith and Mike Molinari all tried their hand, or leg, at punting the football, but none was reliable. Together, they averaged just 38.8 yards per punt on 44 attempts. There were some long ones — Bitancurt had a 57-yarder and Smith a 54-yarder —but there were also those in the 20-yard variety much too often. Again, consistency was an issue.
Bitancurt, who was a hero early in his career after his game-winning field goal against Pitt as a freshman, struggled all year with field goals, making just 11 of 19 attempts.
This looks, on the surface, to be an easy fix, as well. Just find a better kicker, and all will be well.
But three of those attempts ended in blocks, and there was way too much pressure on others. The lack of consistency on field goals can be blamed as much on the blocking up front as on the kicker’s leg, and that’s a more difficult problem to correct.
Leadership — From the beginning of the year, Holgorsen was searching for leaders that he never really found. Smith tried, and Austin and Bailey certainly led by example, but nobody emerged on the defensive side, and there appeared to be some questions when it came to continuity, especially with players bailing midseason.
After Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl, Holgorsen couldn’t stop referencing his team’s inability to respond to adversity. That wasn’t just the case against the Orange, when WVU failed to overcome the bad weather and a couple of big plays that were called back as a result of penalty flags, but it was a recurring problem all season.
The Mountaineers couldn’t handle the wind at Texas Tech, and once they suffered that first loss, they couldn’t put it in the past and get back on track. When Bailey was limited for a couple games with an injury, the passing game suffered. And when Shawne Alston was sidelined for a long stretch with a thigh injury, the Mountaineers struggled to run the football.
That’s a sure sign of a lack of leadership, and it starts at the top.
Holgorsen referenced the wind at halftime of the Texas Tech game, and he complained about the snow and field conditions at the break of the Pinstripe Bowl. If he doesn’t expect his players to use those external factors as excuses, then why bring them up?
Then there’s his reaction to penalties. Saturday was a perfect example of how players reflect the attitude of the coach.
The first instance came early in the third quarter with Syracuse leading 19-7. When Andrew Buie shot through the middle of the Syracuse line and raced 28 yards to the end zone, it appeared as though the Mountaineers had cut the Orange advantage to one score. Instead, a flag brought the score back, and WVU faced a fourth-and-12.
Locked in a tight game still early in the third quarter, Holgorsen chose to call timeout — one that he certainly could have needed down the stretch had WVU been able to hang around — to make sure he had plenty of time to voice his displeasure with the officials. It’s difficult to ask players to shake off penalties and move on to the next play if the coach can’t do the same.
The Mountaineers were able to get the ball back after Isiah Bruce intercepted a Ryan Nassib pass. But on the very next play, Smith fumbled on what looked as though it could have been ruled a pass. After review it was upheld as a fumble.
Holgorsen was still yelling at the officials when Syracuse’s Prince-Tyson Gulley raced 67 yards down the sideline for the Syracuse touchdown. The coach didn’t respond to the adversity, and neither did the defense.
The jump to the Big 12 was a big one, but blaming all the problems on the competition is a huge mistake. Saturday’s disaster didn’t come against one of those new Big 12 powers. It came against an old Big East opponent, and an average one, at that.
WVU wasn’t ready to compete in the Big 12 the first time around, and judging by Saturday’s results, it wouldn’t have been the team to beat in the Big East, either.
The 2012 season was a huge disappointment for the Mountaineers, and with so many problems to fix and so many stars to replace, it’s difficult to imagine 2013 being much better.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.