The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

June 17, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Can WVU be surprise in football?

MORGANTOWN — A few thoughts as a thunderstorm rumbles by on a Monday afternoon:

• Was West Virginia University’s football team really better last year than the record showed, and if so, with as many people coming back and with what seems to be an improved defense, are they sitting on a surprisingly big season?

It’s something to consider, and Dana Holgorsen did it when he appeared with ESPN’s Bruce Feldman on his radio show. A long-time friend of Holgorsen’s with whom he’s far more comfortable speaking to than much of his local media, Holgorsen was asked about the number of close games a year ago.

WVU lost two overtime games that easily could have been victories and lost to Oklahoma by just 16-7, the same Oklahoma team that beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

“There’s a bunch of different factors,” Holgorsen said, trying to explain what transpired. “Our offense was down a little bit, but a lot of times when we started football games all six skills guys were first-year players, whether they were transfers, graduating JC guys or true freshmen; those guys weren’t on the team the previous year.”

Now that is not to say that they were all inexperienced players, quarterback Clint Trickett having played and started at Florida State and running back Charles Sims a player who transferred after being a star at Houston.

Still, there were problems that won’t exist this season.

“Our quarterback play was very average last year, and that’s been well documented. We started three different guys that were all first-year starters,” Holgorsen said.

And that had an interesting effect on the team.

“I think the ball bounced wrong because our confidence took a hit a little bit,” he said.

He thinks his teams will benefit from the experience.

“Nobody likes to be upset after some overtime games, but there were about five games that could have gone either way, but that’s the way it is. You have to go out and earn those victories in the final couple of minutes,” he said.

“We talked a lot about finishing games, and our guys were disappointed in the locker room and they don’t want to feel that disappointment any more. So, based on the hard schedule and the close losses, our locker room is a little bit different right now. Our off-season workouts are a little bit different right now.

“I think those guys are going to continue to work hard, and hopefully the outcome will be a little bit different.”

• The death of Tony Gwynn, the eight-time National League batting champion for San Diego, at just 54 years of age after fighting mouth cancer – yes, he chewed – struck teammates, opponents and media almost as hard as it struck his family.

I will not go into how wonderful a person he was here, but simply try to give you an appreciation of just how really good a hitter he was, which those eight titles and .338 career average, highest of anyone born after 1939, ought to make obvious.

But look inside the numbers.

The most dominating pitching staff during his career was fielded by Atlanta with Greg Maddox, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, all Cy Young winners and all worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Do you know what Tony Gwynn batted against them?

He batted a combined .381 against the three. Breaking it down it was .444 against Smoltz, .414 against Maddux and .303 against the left-handed Glavine.

In truth, it didn’t matter who threw the ball against him.

During his career he faced 27 Cy Young Award winners.

Tony Gwynn batted .400 or better against eight of them.

Against all 27 Cy Young winners, Gwynn batted .340 in 1,002 at bats, which is two points higher than his career average against all pitchers.

Toughest for him to hit? He went 1 for 20 against Frank DiPino.

No pitcher struck him out 10 times in 20 years of playing, Nolan Ryan possessing 9 Ks of Gwynn and Maddux failing to strike him out in 94 at bats.

• WVU’s first four opponents next football season won 43 games last year. and the Mountaineers face Alabama and Oklahoma in the first and fourth game, a huge challenge right out of the gate.

• WVU has 55 players who have played Big 12 football, a large difference from a year ago.

• I assume Americans, and West Virginians, still play tennis, but WVU tennis coach Miha Lisac continues to dip into international recruits, signing a player this week from Brazil and another from India to join players from Egypt and Slovenia on a five-player roster, the only American now from Michigan.

The team was 3-18 last year and was also heavy in international players.

• Law School Hill has long been the bane of summer workouts for WVU and the word is that hasn’t changed. In fact, a source said the players had to make seven trips up the hill the other day.

Don’t know if they’ll beat Alabama at football, but you can bet they would be favored in a race to the top of Mount Everest.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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