By Cam Huffman
The preseason talk from the Big 12 coaches was much the same when it came to newcomers West Virginia and TCU, who will meet at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mountaineer Field, a contest that will be televised nationally on FOX.
When the league’s two first-year schools were admitted last fall, when the preseason magazines inquired during the spring and certainly at Big 12 media days over the summer, the consensus was that the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs would be major players in the conference football race from the start.
The preseason polls proved it was more than just talk, as WVU was picked No. 2 in the 10-team league, with TCU coming in fifth.
At the halfway point of the 2012 season, though, the results haven’t been what many expected. The Mountaineers, once ranked No. 5 in the country, lost two straight in blowout fashion to fall to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in conference play, before getting a chance to catch their breath with a bye week this past Saturday.
TCU, meanwhile, also lost two in a row, falling short against Texas Tech in three overtimes and then betting blown out by Oklahoma State 36-14. The Horned Frogs are now 5-3 overall and just 2-3 in the Big 12.
The adjustment to a new league certainly hasn’t been easy for the former Big East (WVU) and Mountain West (TCU) members.
“I don’t remember the last time we lost two in a row at West Virginia,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “But it’s the reality of the situation. Every game is going to be tough. But we have a strange combination of a bunch of older guys that want to finish the year strong, want to keep winning and want to get to a good bowl game. Then there’s a bunch of young kids that don’t understand any of this. So it’s a combination of both and it’s our job of coaches to mix the two and keep the attitude good.
“From a coaching standpoint, we understand what it is, but from a fan standpoint and a program standpoint, we’re learning more about the Big 12 each and every week.”
TCU head coach Gary Patterson’s response to his team’s struggles sounded a lot like Holgorsen’s.
“Our group understood the competition going into the season, and it hasn’t been any different,” he said, going on to explain that his team has seemed a little tired and that it took Monday off to try to get rested. “When you’re close to the team you’re playing, there are going to be six to eight plays that are the difference in the game. I think that’s held up pretty true so far.
“We’ve played a lot of these guys (before), so we knew the competition level and knew the margin of error would be a lot smaller from week to week. I think our kids are learning that. We’d like to play with older players, but I’m happy with them. We just have to get better at what we do. We’re still excited about where we’re heading and what we’re doing.”
Make no mistake about it, though, Saturday’s game is a big one for both teams.
A sixth win will make the winner bowl eligible, but a three-game losing streak for the loser will be difficult to overcome.
“There was a pretty good sense of urgency last week,” said Holgorsen, who, at first, didn’t like the timing of the off week but admitted that, looking back, he’s happy with what his team was able to get done during the break. “The attention to detail tends to pick up when you get beat, if the makeup of your team is what you want it to be. So we just worried about ourselves last week and now our job this week is to prepare them (for TCU) as best as we possibly can.
“You just have to take advantage of your practice opportunities. You get so caught up in the week to week, as far as what your game plan is, throughout the course of the season you tend to forget some of the fundamental aspects of what being football players is all about. How you improve is by getting better at the technique. We did a lot of work on that, and hopefully that will show up on the field.”
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The winter storm that moved into West Virginia Monday could end up having an impact on Saturday’s game in some manner — whether it’s the Mountaineers’ practice sessions, TCU’s travel or WVU fans’ journey to Morgantown on Saturday.
But Holgorsen doesn’t expect the weather to provide anything his team can’t overcome.
“We’re monitoring it right now. It’s supposed to all be blown out of here by Friday,” said the Mountaineers’ second-year coach. “It’s probably going to affect our preparation a little bit, but we’re ahead of schedule right now, due to having an off week and getting a bunch of good practice in last week. So we’ll be prepared to play.”
His biggest concern is for his players who hail from the areas where Hurricane Sandy is expected to have the most damaging impact.
“We’ve got a lot of kids from New Jersey, Baltimore and (Washington) D.C., so we’re monitoring things to make sure everything is OK with their families,” said Holgorsen. “Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with the people in that part of the country.”
— E-mail: chuffman@