By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
MORGANTOWN — The time has come to take a realistic look at just where the West Virginia University football program has fallen, to delve deeply into how the Mountaineers are going to salvage the momentum they had a year ago after winning the Orange Bowl and correct the problems that dragged them down into a black hole of despair.
Understand the heights to which the program had soared a year ago. It had a potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and probably the two best receivers in the nation to go with him. If ever there seemed to be the perfect year to venture into the Big 12, a conference without a true No. 1 contender, this was it.
But nothing as the new year comes upon us is offering promise. Indeed, there are gaping holes being left by the departures of Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and questions about whether this coaching staff is capable of correcting the defensive problems that followed the team from the opening game.
Coach Dana Holgorsen knows much lies ahead.
“We’ll evaluate everything and see where we are at,” he said in the aftermath of the 38-14 defeat at the hands of Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. “We are in a new position. This is new to us. And Syracuse was not new to us, but the conference was.
“We are going to learn a lot more about what happened in the Big 12 this year. Moving on from here, it’s a little bit more about that than this bowl game and playing against Syracuse.
“We have to re-evaluate a lot of things in our program to see what we have to do to get better to compete in the Big 12.”
The situation that stares them in the face is that they had one of the nation’s most prolific offenses and have lost with it and now must try to win without it. More than that, they have to devise a defense that can stop someone.
What happened against Syracuse was more than disheartening. Holgorsen changed coordinators to Gary Patterson, and while certainly a coach who possibly could rescue the defense, we wish Holgorsen’s roots were more involved into WVU football, for he also has on that staff an experienced defensive coordinator who once challenged for national defensive assistant of the year in Steve Dunlap.
Patterson’s defense was embarrassed, and not by the passing game that had sent Joe DeForest packing, but in a power running game, the kind of offense that West Virginia had handled all season.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Holgorsen admitted. “They were trying to mix up their calls, try to out-gap us in some situations, but they just did a better job with us on the line of scrimmage.
“And the one thing about what we have been able to do is control the line of scrimmage. Our pass defense was bad, but our run defense was OK.
“Being in a game like this where you have to rely on your run defense to help you win and you’re not able to do it is pretty frustrating.”
In this area, it comes back to toughness, pure and simple.
Teams that run the ball are tough teams. Teams that stop the run are tough teams.
This past week Holgorsen backed off on live, outdoor practice. True, the weather was awful, but football is a game of mind over matter in all areas, but none more than getting out and banging each other.
When you think back into the history of football, the coaches who almost always come to mind are Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi above all others as stereotypes of what a football coach should be. We’re not talking about head-banging concussions that no longer are in vogue, but hard practices in which you sacrifice creature comforts to become more dedicated and successful players. That is what has to be reinstalled in a program that once lived off it.
But when you have players on the Syracuse offense relating after the game that WVU players were calling out exactly where the Orange were going to run the ball and still couldn’t stop it, well, you have an issue that has to be addressed.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.