The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

June 27, 2014

4-8 record driving force for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — Things are not always as they seem, and so it is in the world of West Virginia University football.

Certainly, there is a segment of the population singing gloom and doom.

An Orange Bowl champion just three years removed, the Mountaineers hit rock bottom last season as they lost to both Kansas and Iowa State en route to a 4-8 season, the likes of which has not been seen in these parts since Rich Rodriguez’s rookie season at the turn of the century.

To this group, the shadow is long and dark, and the fact that awaiting this team in the coming season is one of the toughest schedules in the country with nothing less than a neutral-field meeting with no less an opponent than Alabama would indicate more of the same.

But that is not the only way to perceive the situation.

Indeed, a coach has to find a light at the end of the tunnel, and even if that light is coming from an onrushing train like Alabama, he will turn it into a positive.

Certainly, that has been Dana Holgorsen’s approach.

The 4-8 season is gone, an indelible mark upon his record, one which will not be changed, but he is trying to use it as a positive.

Right now, WVU players are drawing incentive not only from their failures of a year ago but from the challenge that is Alabama, a chance to change the world’s view of them before September even arrives, the Chic-fil-A Kickoff Classic that matches the Mountaineers and the Crimson Tide in Atlanta being played on Aug. 30.

On Thursday, which was designated a media day for the players, it seemed only fair to find out if this was working and whether the greatest driving force was the horror of last year’s losing season or the challenge offered by Alabama.

From those players approached, Alabama is just a step along the way toward redemption, but that 4-8 season is the driving force through spring practice, summer workouts and camp … at least up until the final two weeks when the coaching staff will focus in on Alabama.

Nose guard Tyler Rose probably was most forceful in offering his opinion that last season’s losing record was serving as inspiration this year.

“Disgrace may be a heavy word, but it was just that to this program and the fans. We’ve been working all off-season to change that. That’s our biggest motivation right now. We don’t want that to happen.”

The point is a simple one. They had the torch passed to them by a group of players who had experienced the Orange Bowl upset of Clemson and that rode that 70-31 triumph to a 5-0 start the previous year before the roof caved in.

That was the start, and when this group of players tried to pick up without Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey it couldn’t do it, leaving them embarrassed … if not disgraced.

“It’s a fine line,” Rose said of how to react to that dismal year. “You don’t want to dwell on the past. You want to look to the future, but you want to remember that 4-8 season because you don’t want it to happen again. West Virginia has always been a winning program, and we want to keep that tradition.”

West Virginia spur KJ Dillon knows the challenge Alabama offers but says that comes behind finding a way to regain the school’s winning ways over the course of the season.

“We know who they are and what they can bring, but we’re not worried about them right now,” he said. “We just have to make sure we do better than we did last year. That’s the main reason we have more pep in our step right now. It just isn’t because we play Alabama. It’s also because we have so much to prove to the people of this city and this state and, most important, this nation.

“Everyone knows we ended last year on a negative note. Everyone is now thinking positive. We believe we can be a contender in this league. It’s about growing together as a team.”

It’s tricky, though, to use the 4-8 season for motivation because it such a negative element.

“You push it in the back of your mind,” Dillon said. “You don’t push it so far that you forget it. You push it because you are looking toward the future, but you have to learn from the past.”

Running back Dreamius Smith, who is looking for a breakout year after a season of getting accustomed to the WVU offense following a career at Butler Community College, is using the 4-8 record from a year ago to get him through the summer.

“Four and eight,” Smith replied. “We are coming in with a chip on our shoulder. We have a lot to prove.”

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson believes the 4-8 season is deceiving and is trying to make sure his players use it in the right way.

“If you look at last year, there’s four games that came down to the very end, and we didn’t make those plays,” Dawson said. “Look at the positive side of it; those same guys are going to be in those close games, and maybe they’ll make the plays now.

“The difference between winning and losing right now in football is very small. You can look across the nation. Go back to the year we won the Orange Bowl. There’s three or four games we could have lost that year.”

That even included the Orange Bowl victory, which turned at the end of the half when Clemson was perched on the WVU goal line ready to take a lead into the locker room when safety Darwin Cook scooped up a fumble and rambled 99 yards to a game-altering touchdown.

“With the margin being so small, the key to winning those games that get tight is having older players, players with more experience and players who have been in that situation before. That’s who usually wins those games. They end up ultimately making the plays so you can be successful,” Dawson said.

“I don’t look at a season thinking, ‘OK, we were 4-8, nothing good came out of it.’ At least we got a lot of kids a lot of experience in those close games. Now, when it happens again, hopefully we can make some plays.”

Running back coach JuJuan Seider sees that 4-8 season putting the Mountaineers into the position where they are at their best.

“Four and eight is motivating us this summer. You know, kids read everything. We like being the underdog when the chips are down. That’s when we play our best. The kids have been there before, and they are not afraid of anybody,” he said.

“We always are the underdogs, and it didn’t matter who we played. Even back in the old Big East with Syracuse and Virginia Tech. They would come in here and we’d upset them. We thrive in those roles.”

One note of caution, however.

Alabama is using the same motivation off a pair of late season-losses, the miracle Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl game that kept the Tide from playing for a national title and a bowl loss to Oklahoma.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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