By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is a streak, yes, but more a nightmare, one that West Virginia University is hoping will come to an end in Ames, Iowa, on a post-Thanksgiving afternoon against a hyped up Iowa State team that doesn’t have the talent WVU has but has something far more valuable — a sixth victory and place in the 2013 bowl picture.
West Virginia has five consecutive defeats dragging it down, the last victory having come on Oct. 6 at Texas.
Iowa State, on the other hand, is coming off a stunning 51-23 victory at Kansas behind a third-string quarterback, Sam Richardson, who came off the bench and pitched a near perfect game.
“It was the classic case of a guy who was ready when handed the keys,” said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, the man who engineered the toughest loss in Mountaineer history as defensive coordinator of the 2007 Pitt team that kept WVU from going to the national championship game.
West Virginia has a player of its own that was ready when handed the keys in Tavon Austin, who was moved to running back last week against the storied Oklahoma program and responded with 344 rushing yards and 572 all-purpose yards in one of the greatest performances in college football history.
But even with that, the Mountaineers fell a point short, and no one knows how that will weigh on this team that has only today’s 3:30 p.m. game at Iowa State and a home game against Kansas next week to turn its 5-5 season into a bowl qualifying one with six victories.
The latest loss was a blow to everything WVU has been trying to establish during its first Big 12 season.
“It is disappointing,” Holgorsen admitted. “Why did it happen? I don’t know. When is it going to end? I don’t know. The only thing we can do about it is get out there and work hard and put ourselves in position to win the next one.”
The problem is while Holgorsen is trying to hold his program together and find some answers for a defense that is giving up 50 points a game in Big 12 play, the opponent is flying high, proud of what it has done over the last four years under Rhoads.
“We’ve come a long way,” Rhoads said. “I inherited a team that had lost 10 straight games and every Big 12 game and had the longest losing streak in the country. Now we’re qualified for a third bowl in four years, and we have a chance to eclipse the three-victory mark in the league and the seven-victory mark for the season.
“My guys are excited about that challenge as we’re coming to an end of Year 4.”
This challenge is a tough one for the Cyclones as WVU comes in a wounded team with three star players playing at the top of their games in Austin, quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey. Each is a candidate for a major award, each looking at a successful NFL career after playing the final two or three games of his WVU career.
But this game isn’t about whether or not Rhoads can devise a plan to stop WVU; it is more about whether WVU can devise a plan to stop anyone. Iowa State just happens to be this week’s opponent, and while the Cyclones don’t have gaudy statistics, they have found ways to get the job done.
Richardson is the latest invention, a quarterback who had played only one series all season before completing 23 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four TDs against Kansas.
While one game does not make a career — there weren’t even any guarantees he would start this week, just as Holgorsen didn’t guarantee Austin would run out of the tailback spot — Rhoads seemed optimistic that he might be able to lift them to the next level.
“Without a doubt it can take us to the next level,” Rhoads answered. “If he can get 23 of 27 we’ll get to the next level in a hurry.”
That level is the one WVU hopes to stay on, but it must respond quickly and correctly to this losing streak.
“The best way to get back on track is to get out there and have the opportunity to play,” Holgorsen said. “Iowa State is a good football team. Iowa State is a team that is solid on all three sides of the ball.”
“I don’t think there is really anything flashy about anything they do. If you look at their stats, nothing really jumps out to you. You watch them on film, and nothing really jumps out to you. It is just a very solid, well coached, effort-oriented team that is very technically sound and plays with just a bunch of effort.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.