By Cam Huffman
On the heels of a 73-42 thrashing at the hands of Baylor Saturday night, West Virginia fans are asking plenty of questions. What’s going on with their Mountaineers? Are the players that bad? Is it the coaches? Where does the team go from here? I thought the defense was better?
They’re all legitimate inquiries, and despite putting on my thinking cap and looking into a crystal ball that was part of the Halloween decorations on sale at Hobby Lobby, I just can’t find all the answers.
I know WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen knows football. You don’t coach offenses that put up the numbers his past teams have accomplished without understanding Xs and Os a little better than the first grade Tic-Tac-Toe champion. You don’t respond from a 37-0 loss to a mediocre Maryland team — the Terrapins were exposed for what they really are in a 63-0 loss to Florida State on Saturday — with a win over an Oklahoma State team ranked No. 11 in the country without understanding how to motivate a football team.
The question I am starting to have is whether Holgorsen knows how to respond to in-game adversity.
I’m not talking about bouncing back from a difficult loss. He did that last weekend, and he regrouped his team for a decent stretch run — excluding the bowl game — after a five-game losing streak last year. And I don’t mean coming back from a halftime deficit at home against William & Mary. WVU has better players than the Tribe, and coming from behind in that game was almost a given.
What I want to know is can Holgorsen have something go wrong — a couple turnovers, some big early plays — and fall behind against a good team and find a way to pull his team out of a hole?
Now in his third season as the Mountaineer head coach, he hasn’t done it yet.
The examples are almost endless. In his first season in 2011, Holgorsen’s team was down just 20-7 with the clock ticking quickly toward halftime in front of a packed house against No. 2 LSU when, instead of running the football and going into the break in a decent position, Holgorsen decided to throw a pass deep in his own territory. Tyrann Mathieu tipped the Geno Smith screen into the air, picked it off and then ran 17 yards to the WVU 1-yard line, setting up another score. WVU went on to lose 47-21.
On the road at Syracuse later that season, WVU fell behind 28-15 on the opening drive of the second half and went downhill faster than a brakeless truck on Sandstone Mountain, eventually losing 49-23.
Last year, after WVU started the season 5-0, it fell behind on the road at Texas Tech. Down 21-7 early in the second quarter, the Mountaineers seemed to panic. By halftime they were down 35-7, and they ended up losing 49-14.
The next week, Kansas State jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, and instead of slowly climbing back, WVU turned the ball over and by halftime the Wildcats led 31-7 on their way to a 55-14 pounding.
The bowl game was a similar story. After Syracuse opened up the third quarter of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl with a touchdown to go up 19-7, the Mountaineers collapsed faster than a popup tent in a derecho on their way to a 38-14 pounding.
The Mountaineers fell behind on the road at Maryland early this season after an early muffed punt and an interception, and they were never able to recover. The Terps turned that early momentum into a 37-point win. Then, when Baylor’s offense scored about as often as Wilt Chamberlain in the opening quarter Saturday night in Waco, Texas, Holgorsen’s Mountaineers tried to make it up all at once, continually throwing deep posts to try to exploit the man-to-man coverage the Baylor defensive backs had on the WVU wide receivers. But when those passes fell incomplete, the winded Mountaineer defense was put right back on the field without much rest, and it had no chance.
There was also Holgorsen’s decision, down 14-7 in the first quarter, to go for a 4th-and-2 in his own territory. The outside run — which has worked about as often as Alex Rodriguez this season — was stuffed short, and the already powerful Baylor offense, which really didn’t need any help, was given a short field to score again and go up 21-7.
Would the Bears have scored anyway, even after a Nick O’Toole punt to pin them deep? Maybe they would have. But the chances of Baylor making a mistake on an 85-yard drive are much greater than making one on a 45-yard drive.
It’s decisions like these — which show panic instead of calm — that lead to blowouts, and that’s exactly what’s happened more often than not in Holgorsen’s tenure. Seven of the 12 losses that the Mountaineers have experienced with Holgorsen at the helm have come by 24 points or more.
Why’s that matter? A loss is a loss, right?
Not necessarily. When a team keeps a game close, there’s always a chance. Did Baylor beat WVU because of any coaching decision? No. The Bears are just better. Play the game 50 times, with 50 different coaches on the Mountaineer sideline, and Baylor would probably win 48 of them.
But by playing a little more conservatively, trying to work the clock and keeping the game closer, WVU could have kept hope alive, and its defense on the sideline. A couple of turnovers or some crucial penalties have caused superior teams to lose before.
Maybe that’s why the outcry was so loud in the wee hours of Sunday morning as Mountaineer fans processed the most points scored against their team since Michigan posted 130 in 1904. Maybe it’s why one of the greatest players in WVU history, Pat White, posted a message on his Twitter account that read, “He is not a leader. Players don’t believe or trust,” and ended it with “#PullThePlug” — a message for which he later apologized.
Losing is one thing. It’s something to which Mountaineer fans are going to have to become a little more accustomed in the more difficult Big 12. But failing to show up and being embarrassed is what leads to a disgruntled and divided fan base — and it’s difficult to keep that attitude from eventually reaching the players.
Blowouts are part of the game. Nick Saban has been blown out in his career and Bear Bryant was, too. But the frequency in which WVU has been on the wrong end of such a score is a problem that must be addressed.