By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The battle for the first John Denver Cup went to Texas Tech Saturday, and the way it played out in the Red Raiders’ 49-14 victory, you might have thought the spirits were working against the West Virginia University Mountaineers.
And well it may have been, as we will now explain.
The John Denver Cup is purely fictional, a figment of this columnist’s imagination simply off the fact that the always mellow singer’s “Country Roads” had become the state song of West Virginia and the theme song of the state university’s football team, sung at the conclusion of every home game.
But Denver has every bit as deep roots at Texas Tech, where he was an architectural student when he still went by the name of Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., before failing to make grades and leaving to pursue his music career.
While at Texas Tech, however, Denver was a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, whose president was a man named Kent Hance, who went on to become chancellor of the school, serving in that capacity today.
Well, for this game he put together a little video about the connection Denver had to the two schools, a cute little video about how Denver used to sing to the dates of the DTD brothers to impress them. Then he closed the video with a premonition that proved to be all too true.
“In fact,” the chancellor said, “his ghost may be out there causing fumbles, missed passes and interceptions for the Mountaineers.”
Well, it is far more likely that Will Doege, the Red Raider quarterback who threw for 499 yards and six touchdowns had more to do with what transpired on the field, but make no doubt that the Mountaineers played as if they were haunted by some unworldly creature.
Yet, there were some strange doings … injuries piling up on the Mountaineers — Will Clarke and Shawne Alston missing the game, Stedman Bailey missing the second half, Brodrick Jenkins going down. Maybe Texas Tech was just hitting that hard.
Then there was the wind.
Ah, the wind. At halftime, television grabbed head coach Dana Holgorsen, who was down 35-7, and asked him about Geno Smith, who was suffering through his first down game since last season, a game that probably dropped him out of the lead in the Heisman Trophy race, although it isn’t clear who would take over.
“We’re letting the wind get us too much. Geno has to settle down. He’s worried about the wind too much,” Holgorsen said.
It sounded trite and like an excuse … and surely it was, but what was he to say then?
Besides, the wind is the kind of thing that comes along with ghosts. Everyone has seen the haunted houses, with the wind screaming through them.
And what was that quarterback coach Jake Spavital said after the game after saying the wind really wasn’t an excuse?
“It seemed like the wind flipped a lot of times,” he said, noting something else. “It seemed like it was always going into our face.”
The wind, however, did not beat West Virginia, and it did not bring Geno Smith’s game down from nearly perfect to merely human.
“The wind didn’t bother me. I always say there were no excuses for what happened to me today. I didn’t hit my targets. There were a number of things I did wrong,” he said. “Everyone has a bad game. That’s the way it goes. I don’t think I had a terrible game, but I measure myself on wins and losses.”
Shannon Dawson, the offensive coordinator, admitted that things did not go as planned and tried to point out that Geno Smith wasn’t the only culprit here.
“Geno is not the only person out there. He throws it; we have people to catch it,” he said.
And all season they had, but not on this day, and Dawson was to add something very strange in explaining the way it is.
“We don’t ask anyone to do anything supernatural,” he said, the choice of words fitting all too well with the John Denver theme.
If the ghosts and goblins were working against WVU, so was the skill of Texas Tech, which went into the game as the No. 2 defense in the nation and did nothing to hurt its standing there, totally outplaying the WVU offense.
They pressured Smith, covered receivers as they had not been covered all season and tackled ball carriers as no one else had. WVU, which had been averaging 570 total yards entering the game, came out of it with just 408.
But still it is wrong to pin WVU’s first loss on the offense, not so long as there is a defense out there that would give up 676 yards, a figure that would have been much higher were it not for players having to stop once they crossed the goal line.
That this defense struggled isn’t any longer news. It always struggles. West Virginia had never given up 600 yards in a game in its 120-year history until this year. It has now done it twice.
It’s so bad that when a streaker went on to the field and they had a problem grabbing him, someone suggested the WVU defense be sent out to get him, only to be met with the remark that if they did it would be their first tackle all day.
And so the Mountaineers return home from the plains of West Texas, dreams of an unbeaten season shattered and having to wait until next year to take another shot at the John Denver Cup.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bhertzel.