By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Quitting is easy, and because of that it is a coach’s worst nightmare when things go bad.
Certainly, things had gone bad for West Virginia University’s football team.
What started like a national championship season, with five huge victories that sent hopes soaring, had turned into an equally deflating five-game losing streak that tested not only the sanity of all involved but the inner strength.
As they rode into Iowa State on a frigid Friday with a northwest wind whipping through the stadium and their very bodies, West Virginia’s Mountaineers could have said the hell with it all, Kansas is next week, and mailed in the Iowa State game.
Instead, they survived adversity and, just when it looked like they were about to give away another game, they found a way to win … a difficult way, Tavon Austin running 75 yards with a touch pass for a touchdown and Darwin Cook causing a goal-line fumble at a time when all year WVU was the team fumbling.
It was more than just a victory that made them bowl eligible and may send them to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl at a time when the New York sky is gray and the weather is cold and snowy for the Pinstripe Bowl.
It was a victory of mind over matter.
“Throughout it all we stuck together,” said Tavon Austin, who has emerged as the most dynamic performer in college football today, adding 272 all-purpose yards to his resume in the Iowa State victory. “There were some bumps and bruises and some little conversations, but at the end of the day it was win together and lose together. We got each other’s back, and hopefully we can keep on winning.”
Losing is hard to take. Losing the way the Mountaineers had been, giving up 94-yard passes in the closing minutes, dropping a game to Oklahoma by a point, that eats your heart out.
“I’m proud of the guys the way they just kept fighting,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We knew exactly what we were going to get into tonight. This is a team that was not going to beat themselves. The environment was going to be hostile; it was going to be cold, and it was going to be windy.”
Those are all things that work against giving spirit to a dispirited team.
“I can give you a thousand different excuses or reasons why we wouldn’t be able to play and come out of here with a victory, but the guys were determined to get the win, and I’m proud of them,” Holgorsen said.
They dug down inside themselves and discovered that there was something left, call it pride or whatever, but this team that had been so beaten down actually made plays when it had to make them, even when they
were in the process of beating themselves with self-inflicted wounds brought on by senseless penalties.
The defense, so vulnerable all year, came up with a stop when it had to, and when the final gun went off the scoreboard said that they not only had held a team under 40 points — something they had not done since Oct. 22 when they beat Maryland, 31-21, but to fewer than 30 points.
“We have been practicing so hard the last couple of weeks, everyone trying to get better in every aspect of the game,” said cornerback Pat Miller, who had come to symbolize the frustrations of the defense. “Things were not falling right for us, but the ball finally bounced our way, and everything worked out for us.”
Part of it was those hard practices, practices that took the players’ minds off the misfortune on the field and directed it all inward, toward the suffering they were putting forth to gain a victory, giving it more value than they could imagine a victory that made you 6-5 could have.
“The last three weeks have been tough,” said Holgorsen, whose teams lost two one-point games and one 21-point game when special teams gave away 17 points. “We could be sitting here with a lot better record than we have right now if it wasn’t just one play here, one play there, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We had to look forward, and our guys were determined to get the win.”
And when it ended, they found themselves huddling together in the warmth of the locker room that until this week had been Iowa State’s home locker room, celebrating a victory for the first time since Oct. 6.
“It feels so new to us because of the losses we had. There’s nothing like going into the locker room and celebrating with your teammates and people you put your life on the line for basically every day,” Miller said, perfectly explaining just what this team concept is.
And so it was that the victory saved what was left of the year, made it tolerable if not acceptable.
“It feels good to know we’re not the only senior class not to go to a bowl game,” Austin said. “It’s not what we wanted. We wanted to go to the BCS and win a national championship, but things happen.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.