By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was early Saturday morning, earlier than any football team likes to pile into a group of buses and leave as lovely a place as Lakeview Resort and head to a stadium for a football game.
Noon is a nice time for lunch, but really you’d like a little more time to get the competitive juices flowing, especially West Virginia University on this lovely morning, coming off a 37-0 embarrassment at Maryland a week ago and headed toward a perceived slaughter.
Awaiting them was the nation’s No. 11 team, undefeated Oklahoma State, a three-touchdown favorite.
Ishmael Banks, a cornerback they call “Icky,” nestled into his seat for the 15-minute ride or so, and lots of thoughts were rolling through his head.
“On the way over here on the bus, all I’m saying to myself is, ‘Make plays, make plays,’ know what I’m saying? Do something to help this team win. Make a play,” he recalled about six hours later, one of the most stunning upsets in WVU history having been put into the record books, a 30-21 victory over Oklahoma State.
Indeed, similar thoughts were on all the defenders’ minds. They had actually played well at Maryland. In fact, they had played well all season but were being challenged because the offense had struggled so badly.
The coaches this week had told them that just getting turnovers wasn’t enough. They had to be meaningful turnovers, done in opponent’s territory at an important moment in the game.
That is a huge challenge, of course, for just getting a turnover is hard enough.
“That was one of the things we emphasized this week, to try and set up a score so they could build up some confidence,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said.
“That’s West Virginia defense,” Patterson continued. “That’s what made West Virginia great over the course of how long they have been playing football. It’s just tough, physical-minded, mentally tough game. It seems like it’s always been that way. Studying West Virginia back 10 or 15 years ago, it seems they always came up with the key turnover at the right moment in the game.”
And so it came to pass, so to speak, that in this game the Cowboys had struck first and in no small way, connecting on a 73-yard middle screen pass for a touchdown.
No matter how you looked at WVU had now given up 44 consecutive points over two games and when they immediately turned the ball back to Oklahoma State it looked like night was falling in midday.
That was when Banks stepped in front of a J.W. Walsh pass, picked it off cleanly and raced into the end zone to tie the game, 7-7.
The game changed.
Perhaps the season changed.
Who knows, maybe even Dana Holgorsen’s career path changed.
“It was a big play,” Banks admitted. “Last week, we knew we were better than that. We didn’t let it sink in and get us out of our morale.”
Patterson was asked if it could be a season-changing play.
“I think it could,” he said. “That remains to be seen. It depends on how we come back next week and come off the bye week after that.”
And Holgorsen, whose job security has been slipping, what did he think of the play?
“It was huge. That’s what we talked about all week,” he said. “We think we are playing better defense, but if you want to go from good to great, you have to make bigger plays. Darwin Cook’s interception in the fourth quarter was huge. Icky’s interception was enormous. That fumble set up a field goal was huge.
“That’s the reason we won the game. I don’t want to call them great yet, but they improved.”
Indeed, this has become one of those West Virginia defenses that used to be, a defense that looks even better than it may really be in the shadow of the abysmal defensive group that was put together a year ago.
“Obviously, they are playing much better,” losing coach Mike Gundy said. “They are more gap responsible. They are running to the football. They are better tacklers than they were a year ago.”
Mainly, though, they are tougher than were a year ago, and you can’t ignore the importance of that in a sport that is doing all it can to take the toughness out of the game through the rules.
In the end, toughness is what it football will always be about.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.