The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 12, 2012

Time to look in the mirror

Mountaineers’ struggles are about more than Big 12

I read it on Twitter and Facebook in the moments following another disappointing West Virginia loss Saturday, this one a 55-34 setback on the road at Oklahoma State. I heard it from WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen in the postgame press conference. I even listened to a conversation about the topic Sunday in Kohls, while doing some early holiday shopping.

“This is the Big 12,” they all said. “WVU just isn’t ready for this league yet.”

While I accept that the competition in the Mountaineers’ new conference is better than that in their old league, the Big East, I’m not buying it as an excuse for WVU’s four-game losing streak.

This summer, I wrote a column warning Mountaineer fans that their expectations had to change. In a conference with the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State, just to name a few of the top dogs, an 8-4 season will be a success in most years, instead of reason for panic and firing coaches, as it was in the Big East.

But on Oct. 7, WVU was 5-0, 2-0 in the Big 12, and it was coming off a win over one of the league’s best teams, Texas, on the Longhorns’ home turf. It happened in front of the largest crowd ever at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium, also the largest gathering to ever watch any WVU football team.

Those who know the game of college football best — coaches and media members, who follow college football for a living, not just a hobby — thought enough of what they had seen to rank the Mountaineers among the five best teams in the country.

I — like those who wear gold and blue to work, dinner and church — began to change my expectations of this year’s team, and I’m still convinced that what I saw in Austin warranted such a switch.

Sure, there were some weaknesses on defense, but WVU’s offense was among the country’s best, and it was finding ways to win, no matter the obstacles in its way.

Since that trip to Texas, though, a different WVU team has taken the field. The offense was non-existent in a 49-14 loss to Texas Tech, and the defense’s woes finally caught up to the Mountaineers as a result. Things were worse the next week against Kansas State as the offense stayed MIA in a 55-14 setback.

Then came the home loss to TCU, when, despite what the score indicates, the defense was much better, although the offense continued to struggle in key situations. A 39-38 overtime loss left WVU at 5-3 and sliding downhill fast.

Saturday in Stillwater, Okla., the Mountaineers had a chance to put all that in the past. The offense started to click again, and, despite a slow start, the defense showed improvement as the game progressed. Those units played well enough to come away with a win.

But the special teams let WVU down. Whether it was fumbling a line drive kickoff, being hit by a bouncing ball on a punt or allowing a kick return for a touchdown, WVU’s kickoff and return teams were a complete disaster.

The result was another loss, 55-34, and now with three games left, Tavon Austin admitted that this Mountaineer team that once had thoughts of winning the conference, and maybe more, has shifted its goals to simply becoming bowl eligible, meaning winning one of the last three against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas.

Every week it’s something different, but it’s obvious that something’s wrong. Something is different than it was a little more than a month ago.

“It’s just not the road. The home games are tough, too,” said head coach Dana Holgorsen, who freely admitted early in the year that his team’s goal was to win the Big 12 in its first season in the league, something he claimed was within reach. “The conference is hard. What are we going to do to try to be able to get in a position to win the league? We have to do a lot of things. I’ve been saying since day one, it’s going to take some time for everybody involved to figure this conference out. There are a lot of good, quality teams.

“To win on the road in this league is tough. To win at home is tough. The quality of the opponent is pretty good, and I think we, as a team, are finding that out. This is uncharted territory for a lot of people involved, but you can’t make those mistakes and beat anybody in this league.”

So the Mountaineers just aren’t at a spot where they’re ready to compete in the Big 12?

Tell that to Mack Brown and his Longhorns.

I’ll agree that WVU’s depth is well behind some of the other teams in this league, but how does that explain not being able to field kickoffs? What does that have to do with running into a loose pigskin on a punt?

If the personnel — which includes a quarterback who was a Heisman Trophy frontrunner (Geno Smith), one of the biggest all-purpose weapons in college football (Austin) and a wide receiver (Stedman Bailey) who is as good as any to ever set foot on Mountaineer Field — was good enough to compete with Texas, which now stands third in the Big 12 and is climbing back up the national rankings, and score 70 on Baylor, why is it not good enough to run with teams closer to the bottom like Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State?

Does the competition cause players to drop easy passes or overthrow open receivers? And what about the defections? Does playing quality opponents just make two wide receivers — Taveras Copeland and Ivan McCartney — walk away from the team in the same week?

That’s apparently what happened, although Holgorsen labeled Copeland’s defection as a “personal decision” and refused to answer questions about McCartney, shouting “why do you care?” when reporters asked the question that the fans paying $100 per ticket to help pay his $2.3 million salary want answered.

Holgorsen repeated over and over during his postgame press conference Saturday that his team made “junior high mistakes” against the Cowboys, and I agree. WVU’s struggles are about the Mountaineers, not about the opponents. Nine games into the season, a team should not be making mistakes that usually appear in preseason scrimmages or spring practice. And when it does, the blame has to fall at the feet of those in charge.

It’s clear to anybody who follows the WVU program that there’s something wrong in the locker room, and it’s Holgorsen’s job to fix it. If there’s a cancer among the players, it’s his responsibility to remove it. If his team is lacking focus, as he’s claimed a couple of times over the course of the losing streak, it’s his duty to make sure that doesn’t happen again. If motivation is an issue, Holgorsen has to find a way to inspire his club.

If it’s simply a matter of executing the fundamentals, he’s the one in charge of the practice plan. Throwing the headset or his gum isn’t going to fix the problem. Holgorsen also has to realize that he’s now the head coach and in charge of every aspect of the program.

The 2012 WVU football season isn’t going to end as most fans had hoped, but there’s still plenty for which to play. As Holgorsen proved in 2011, blemishes in the regular season can be quickly erased by a strong finish, and a win against Oklahoma would obviously be a huge bandage for the Mountaineers’ wounded pride.

But the first step is figuring out what’s wrong, and the answer has nothing to do with the teams on the other side of the field.

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