By Cam Huffman
Mountaineer fans, you can now make your holiday plans without worrying about how postseason football may play into the equation. West Virginia’s 35-12 loss to Kansas State Saturday didn’t officially eliminate the Mountaineers (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) from bowl contention for the first time in 12 years, but it probably did eliminate them from any bowl anybody would actually want to attend.
Let’s be honest. When the best case scenario is a return trip the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, a holiday light show with the family certainly sounds like a better option. Blowup Santa Clauses and snowmen playing basketball are more fun to watch than bad teams playing football, in bad weather, inside a baseball stadium.
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A series of events that might have gone unnoticed to many actually played a huge part in the WVU loss Saturday.
On the Mountaineers’ second offensive possession of the game, WVU was facing a third-and-8 at its own 29-yard line when Clint Trickett dropped back to pass but saw some running room open up in the middle of the field.
The junior took what the defense gave him and ran through the middle of the KSU defense, sliding to avoid injury when he reached the chains.
The officials, though, decided they wanted to be noticed, and instead of giving Trickett the first down that the Wildcats probably would have conceded, they spotted the ball less than a half-yard short, and the Mountaineers were forced to punt.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter with WVU holding the ball trailing 21-12, looking for points to pull back within one score. On a third-and-5 from the WVU 44-yard line, Trickett again found running room up the middle and turned to his mobility to try to move the chains. This time when he got to the line to gain, he didn’t take any chances. With the first-quarter play in mind, Trickett didn’t slide. Instead, he tried to keep running for extra yardage, and he was stripped of the football by a KSU’s Ty Zimmerman.
The Wildcats converted the turnover into points, scoring a touchdown with a 54-yard drive, and WVU couldn’t recover.
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Dana Holgorsen is still in just his second year as a head coach, and it’s understandable that lessons remain to be learned. But, at least in Saturday’s game, he got the message about as well as my dog, who continues to relieve himself on my basement floor, despite punishment on every occasion.
In last Saturday’s loss to No. 16 Texas Tech in Morgantown, Holgorsen admitted that he made a fatal error in judgement when, down 10-0, he chose to try to convert on a fourth-and-14 from the TTU 26-yard line instead of attempting a 43-yard field goal. Trickett’s pass to the end zone fell incomplete, and WVU spent the rest of the afternoon chasing those three points.
When the Red Raiders scored with a little less than 10 minutes to go in the game, the touchdown put the visitors ahead 30-27. That was also the score when they got the ball back for their final drive with 4:30 left on the clock.
Had WVU converted the field goal way back in the opening quarter, the game could have been tied, and Tech could have been feeling the pressure of a potential game-winning drive instead of the task of simply running out the clock.
A week later in Manhattan, Kan., Holgorsen was faced with a similar situation when the Mountaineers, leading 9-7, drove to the KSU 9-yard line as the clock ticked toward one minute to go in the opening half.
On a fourth-and-7 from the KSU 9, the Mountaineers had an opportunity to kick a field goal, increase their lead to five points and take some momentum into the locker room.
Holgorsen sent the field goal team onto the field to do just that, but instead, he called a fake. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out quite like Phil Brady’s fake punt in the Mountaineers’ Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in 2006.
Holder Michael Molinari found some running room, but he still came up three yards short of a first down. WVU’s lead remained 9-7, and the Wildcats — who had looked more like sleeping kittens through the first two quarters — went into halftime with plenty of enthusiasm after making a crucial stop.
Those three points may seem insignificant in a game that ended up with a 23-point margin. But it’s important to remember that for a good portion of the fourth quarter, KSU’s lead was only 21-12. Had it been 21-15, and WVU had been just one score behind, the strategy would have significantly changed. WVU wouldn’t have had to play with such desperation, and the closing minutes could have turned out quite differently.
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Perhaps the strangest decision Holgorsen made all afternoon, though, was pulling Trickett and inserting Paul Millard with 7:25 to go in the game and WVU trailing 28-12.
The plan obviously backfired when Millard completed just 4 of 13 passes and threw an interception.
Could Trickett have brought the Mountaineers back? It’s doubtful. He did some positive things against the Wildcats, but he treated the football like a hot potato — a trend that he passed on to his receivers, at times.
But was Millard — who hadn’t played since the second game of the season at Oklahoma — going to come into the game in a desperation situation and suddenly take charge, after failing to do so all season? If the answer was on the bench, wouldn’t WVU have turned to it weeks ago?
Now, WVU heads into another difficult road test next week at TCU, with one quarterback, Ford Childress, injured, another, Trickett, looking over his shoulder with his confidence in question, and another, Millard who has to be psychologically shattered after finally getting the opportunity and watching it go so poorly.
Was the situation at quarterback not bad enough already?
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.