By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Found the ashes left from last Saturday’s special-teams inferno in Stillwater as West Virginia University lost its fourth consecutive game to Oklahoma State, 55-34, was one flame-retardant punter/placekicker named Tyler Bitancurt.
A week earlier, when the Mountaineers’ special teams self-ignited against TCU, Bitancurt was there holding the match and a can of gasoline, having missed four of five field goal attempts — most from long range — while being unable to control a bad snap from center that wound up a touchdown for the grateful Horned Frogs.
The events in that TCU game sent Bitancurt off soul-searching.
“It’s just disappointment,” the senior said of the feeling. “You work so hard in the offseason and you work so hard during the season preparing for each game, to not get the outcome you expect hurts … but at the same time it’s a wakeup call. Obviously, if I hadn’t done something incorrectly, I would have made all those kicks, and I wouldn’t have let that snap get away.”
That made it all the more important when he bounced back against Oklahoma State.
Strangely, while the center and kicker had their problems in that TCU game, the rest of the special teams performed admirably in coach Dana Holgorsen’s eyes. He could not know they would come undone just a week later with a series of serious miscues — “junior high mistakes” being the term Holgorsen used — in costing WVU any chance of winning at Oklahoma State, just as Bitancurt put everything back together.
“I sat here a week-and-a-half ago and thought we played really well on special teams, other than executing the snap and executing the kick, whether it was a kick or a punt,” Holgorsen said. “So we worked hard at that all week, and if you look at the execution of the snap and the kick, they were really good (Saturday). Both snapping and punting were excellent.
“(Punter/kicker) Tyler responded and had probably the best day he’s ever had here. John DePalma snapped and did his job running down the field with a tremendous amount of effort. With that said, everything else was bad. Everything else I said was good turned bad.”
Special teams coordinator Steve Dunlap took timeout on Tuesday night to talk about what transpired against Oklahoma State, about how so many different things could go wrong, finally ending up his analysis like this:
“It was a bad day. How about that?”
Indeed, it was, and the play that seemed to represent all that went wrong was a punt that Tavon Austin, one of the nation’s most capable return men, messed up with a brain cramp, waving and shouting everyone else off the ball when it bounced into him and was recovered by the Cowboys.
“If the ball was round, it wouldn’t be so hard to catch, but since it is oval, it goes all kinds of crazy ways,” said Dunlap, trying to ease some of the blame that has fallen upon Austin. “I have two or three of those on film from other teams muffing the ball this year.”
Footballs do take strange bounces, but the play was simply messed up, just as was downing one of Bitancurt’s punts that bounced into the end zone with four Mountaineers and, it seemed, the Mountaineer mascot standing in position to down it.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” Bitancurt said when it was brought up. “It’s very disappointing and frustrating, when one side of the ball makes mistakes and you get them fixed and the other side isn’t focused.”
The thing that is most shocking about these continued special team failures is that historically WVU has fielded among the nation’s best special teams.
Todd Sauerbrun was probably the greatest college punter ever, as a senior in 1994 setting an NCAA record which still stands of 48.4 yards per punt.
Among the great placekickers were Mike Vanderjagt, who went to a long NFL career, Paul Woodside and Ken Juskowich, whose five field goals beat Pitt, 15-0, in 1967.
And, of course, there have been marvelous kick returners from Noel Devine to Nate Terry to Fulton Walker to Willie Drewery to today’s Tavon Austin.
This year has been one disaster after another, even involving Bitancurt. That’s what made his performance against Oklahoma State so important as he made both of his field goal attempts.
“It meant a lot to me. We struggled against TCU. That game didn’t go the way any kicker would want it to happen. I needed to bounce back. That’s what I worked on all week preparing for OSU. I fixed the mistakes we made against TCU,” Bitancurt said.
He even punted for an average of 47.8, outkicking Cowboy star punter Quinn Sharp, which was important to him.
“I like to think I can compete with any kicker. When all the talk is about him or the other team, I like to show I can do it. It’s not the main point, but it’s in the back of my mind,” he said.
The thing is that Bitancurt, himself a WVU kicking hero with two game-winning field goals on the final play of the game, one against Pitt, wasn’t the punter at the start of the season.
“We worried we’d kick him too much,” Dunlap explained. “You can’t kick off and go punt and placekick. You will kick your leg out.”
Bitancurt didn’t make any waves but he did want to do the punting in addition to placekicking.
“I always felt I could punt; if given the opportunity I could help the team,” he said. “I wanted to punt but I knew my role was being the placekicker on this team so I didn’t really attack the punting role.”
WVU found itself last in nation in punting, forcing a change.
“When things weren’t going good I was really upset because I wanted our punters to do well but, at the same time, I knew I could do the job,” Bitancurt said. “When they gave me the opportunity, I needed to make the best of it.”
Now his career has three, maybe four games left.
“It’s kind of shocking, how fast everything went. It’s been fun. I want to finish strong. I just want to do the best I can for the next three or four weeks,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bhertzel.