By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It ended happily and with a celebration, not exactly the celebration you might have expected on opening day of the 2012 football season, not one celebrating a Big 12 title and an expectation of a BCS bowl spot or maybe, just maybe, a place in the national championship game.
No, this was a celebration of survival, of a team that had, in its coaches’ words “star power,” the kind that would always be attractive to those big-time games, but it was a team who nearly let the entire season slip away from it.
Indeed, if Saturday’s 59-10 victory over a one-win Kansas team was a reminder of what this team was expected to do, the 7-5 final record it produced was a product of what it actually did, of a five-game losing streak in midseason that kicked the entire state in the stomach.
It left them spending Saturday night not wondering which of the 15 million or so bowl games they would attend, but instead whether they could sneak in the back door of the Holiday Bowl or head off to play Pitt — if it won Saturday night’s game — in something called the Pinstripe Bowl in that citadel of college football the Bronx, N.Y.
That they didn’t fold up and just quit, though, had a something to do with the way Dana Holgorsen and his coaching staff handled them and even more to do with the way quarterback Geno Smith asserted his leadership after Holgorsen got him to stop heaping all the blame upon himself.
“We had a couple of tough losses and these kids did not quit. They wanted to finish the year strong. They had a very tough victory last week at Iowa State and then came here and played really well on all sides of the ball,” Holgorsen said.
“The only way these seniors are going to go out on top and have good memories is if they win the last game and I’ll use that in the bowl game. This isn’t the real senior day. The bowl game is the real senior day.”
That they got to a bowl game after that five game losing streak, that they held together, much of that can be attributed to Smith, whose final game in Mountaineer Field, as it was called when he showed up on the scene, was among his best.
No, it wasn’t the Baylor game revisited, a game in which he threw eight touchdowns and 656 yards, but then you only have those games come along about once a century.
But he did play the entire game without throwing an incompletion — he did have one interception, but not one of his passes hit the ground. He completed 21 of those passes in a row, setting the school record and his 95.8 completion percentage tied the NCAA record set by Tee Martin of Tennessee against South Carolina on Oct. 31, 1998.
The thing that was most important, though, was that he refused to crackup during the losing streak and didn’t allow the team to do so, either.
And rest assured, he was under pressure.
“He took a lot of the fault in his eyes and across the country. In the media the finger got pointed at him a lot when we weren’t doing specific things well,” Holgorsen said.
Early on in streak he took much of it upon himself, much more responsibility than he deserved and Holgorsen actually had to call him out to get him on track again.
Smith looked back upon it after this home finale.
“Losing five in a row is not easy. I know that everyone in this locker room was giving it their all. After that first loss, that second loss and after the third it was just do or die. It was tough. No one hung their heads, the locker room never split, we never turned on the coaches and pointed fingers at anyone. We all stuck together and took the blame for it.
“That’s the sign of a good program and a good team.”
And Smith was proud of his reaction to it.
He recalled an earlier time in his career when things went bad.
“I can look back 3 or 4 years ago and had I been in that situation I couldn’t have handled it,” he said. “I remember losing to UConn my first year starting. I had to go home and talk to my Mom because I was like down in the dumps. She picked me up. Now she calls and asks if I’m all right and I tell her I’m fine and that’s different for her.”
Smith’s mental and emotional growth is what is setting him apart as a quarterback, putting him in position to be a first-round draft pick, maybe the No. 1 pick, and a Heisman finalist, but in this game there was much company for him.
Tavon Austin rushed 12 times for 77 yards and a touchdown along with catching four passes for 110 yards. He finished the regular season with 61 rushes for 598 yards and 3 TDs; 110 receptions for 1,259 yards and 12 TD; 1 punt returns for 165 yards and a touchdown and 28 kickoff returns for 2,760 all-purpose yards, 230 per game.
And then there was Stedman Bailey, probably in his final game as Mountaineer, although he has yet to decide, who caught 11 passes for 159 yards and two more touchdowns, giving him 23 touchdowns for the season to go with 106 catches for 1,501 yards.
Kansas never had a chance.
“I was just happy the 21 seniors were able to experience that,” Holgorsen said. “I’ll say this about our seniors. These guys mean a lot to me, but they mean a lot to the West Virginia family, to the state of West Virginia, the university. These guys have been through coaching changes. They’ve been through conference changes and they’ve never once said this is too hard or this isn’t fair or this isn’t why I came here.
“They’re here because they love it here and they are a very tight group. They were the glue that kept everything together when we were challenged. The more we’re in the Big 12, the more we’ll understand it. “
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.