Dana Holgorsen was a Mountain State hero when his West Virginia University team boarded a charter flight bound for Lubbock, Texas, on Oct. 12, 2012. The second-year Mountaineer head coach could have run for governor of West Virginia and won without a single campaign ad.
Holgorsen had led WVU to a 10-3 season and a 70-33 blowout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl in his first year at the helm, and his second season was off to a 5-0 start that included back-to-back wins over No. 25 Baylor and No. 11 Texas. With Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith at quarterback and two of the country’s best wide receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, there was talk, and not just within the state’s borders, about a possible national championship for the No. 5 Mountaineers.
Then they took the field against Texas Tech in front of more than 57,000 fired up Red Raider fans and fell flat on their face.
A 49-14 loss began a streak of five straight defeats for a WVU team that had to hang on to win its last two games just to become bowl eligible. Many Mountaineer fans wished it hadn’t, as WVU was blown out 38-14 by a very average Syracuse squad in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Holgorsen followed up that 7-6 campaign with an even more disappointing 4-8 finish in 2013 that included embarrassing losses to Iowa State, Kansas and Maryland, and suddenly the hero had become the villain, as many WVU fans were calling for his job.
On Saturday, Holgorsen and his Mountaineers will return to the scene of the disaster when WVU (3-2) and Texas Tech (2-3) go head-to-head at noon on Fox Sports 1. It’s a game that is critical to both teams as the Red Raiders — whose only wins this season have come over Central Arkansas (42-35) and UTEP (30-26) — look to break a three-game losing skid and WVU hopes to continue to gain back some supporters as its done during a 3-2 start — which has included revenge wins over Kansas and Maryland and competitive efforts against two very strong teams in Oklahoma and Alabama.
“We’re 3-2,” said Holgorsen Monday during the Big 12 Coaches Teleconference. “I’d be a lot happier if we were 5-0. But two of the teams that we lost to last year — we had a very poor performance against Maryland a year ago and a very poor performance against Kansas a year ago — this year we beat them. I’m happy with those two.
“We played a couple of teams that were pretty good in Oklahoma and Alabama. But what’s done is done. Whether you’re happy with it or not happy with it, it’s about preparation to play the next opponent. That’s Texas Tech, and we need to do everything we can to improve so we can win that one.”
Holgorsen expects his team to be much better prepared than the one that made the trip two years ago, mostly because it won’t be a brand new experience for many of them.
“We have a lot of guys on our roster that have been to Lubbock, Texas, before,” said the coach, who knows Texas Tech well, having spent eight seasons there as an assistant coach from 2000 through 2007. “That’s probably step No. 1. I specifically remember trying to explain to them what the Big 12’s like and what specific venues are like. That’s kind of a part of our job. But if you don’t have guys who have been there and done that, it makes it tough.
“We’ve got 30 or 40 guys that made that trip two years ago. We were really young and inexperienced, and we just didn’t understand what the situation was. I think we’re better prepared now.”
He also believes his offense is more balanced after some diligent work on the run game the last two years. He credited offensive line coach Ron Crook with making some necessary adjustments to give WVU a better ground attack, something that could be important if the wind is swirling as it was two years ago at the Red Raiders’ Jones AT&T Stadium.
“If your timing is off, the weather conditions aren’t perfect or you’re a little banged up on the outside, you can always go back to being able to run the football,” said Holgorsen. “We love throwing the ball, and we have some wideouts that are playing at a pretty high level. We’ve set the bar high, so we’re going to continue to be able to do that.
“It all comes down to being able to do what the defense gives you. I think we’re at a point now with this offense with a fifth-year starting quarterback, where we can identify what the defense is trying to do and attack it how we need to attack it — whether it’s the run game or the throwing game.”
WVU is 1-2 all-time against the Red Raiders. Its only win came on New Year’s Day in 1938, when it knocked off Texas Tech 7-6 in El Paso, Texas.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.