By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not when West Virginia University and Texas Christian University meet for the first time as members of the Big 12.
Oh, they both knew they were taking a step up in class of competition, but considering that in the past couple of years one — TCU — had won the Rose Bowl, and the other — WVU — had won the Orange Bowl, it certainly didn’t seem to be anything they couldn’t handle.
Yet, here they are, on the verge of a crucial Big 12 showdown and both going in the wrong direction, each with two straight losses, each struggling on offense and each looking for defensive answers.
Sometimes reality sucks.
The game is at 3 p.m. today at Milan Puskar Stadium, and it is a game with more questions than answers for two teams who seem to be quite similar.
“I try not to compare anybody,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said when that subject was raised. “We try to get to know our opponent as well as we can. We worry about ourselves and getting our guys ready to play.
“We want to get them prepared from a mentality standpoint, and we want to get them in the right frame of mind. We worry a little bit more about ourselves than the opponent.”
It isn’t, he said, that the opponent is ignored. Hardly. It’s just that the game really is West Virginia’s to win or lose.
“We get to know the opponent as much as we can. We just want to get the guys in the right frame of mind to execute,” Holgorsen said.
They must also prepare technically for the game, for there have been far too many weaknesses in the WVU game — both offensively and defensively.
It begins with the necessity for WVU to discover a pass rush and a way to make it seem as if all 11 offensive players aren’t running pass patterns against WVU’s six or seven defenders, so free do they roam the secondary.
Much of it has been the cornerback play, first by veterans Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, who may come back this week from injury, and then from freshmen like Ricky Rumph and Nana Kyeremeh, but how much can you ask of freshmen covering experienced wideouts on the major college level?
“It’s a difficult position to mature quickly at,” cornerback coach Daron Roberts admitted. “That’s absolutely not an excuse, but they are developing. I can’t make a prediction and start calling them the next Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy, but the questions we’ll get in two years will be more, ‘Wow, aren’t you happy you’ve got two experienced corners? Isn’t it great they played their freshman years?’”
Hogan and Tandy, it will be recalled, were targets early in their careers and looked at times as if they would not survive their freshman seasons, but both went to the National Football League.
The defense does get something of a break in that TCU is starting a freshman quarterback who is coming off injury in Trevone Boykin, who was forced onto the field to replace veteran Casey Pachall, a really fine QB who had to enter a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
Paul Rhoads, Iowa State’s coach, said on a recent Big 12 coaches call that he was impressed with what he saw of Boykin.
He and his receivers certainly have WVU’s attention.
“Boykin is a dual-threat guy that is dangerous with his feet,” Holgorsen said. “He has some weapons around him. The receivers that they have are guys that could have gone to other quality, quality programs. They do a tremendous job of distributing the ball to a bunch of different people.”
More important, though, than Boykin to the Mountaineers is the play of their own quarterback Geno Smith, who is coming off one of the least productive games of his career with 143 passing yards.
He vows to return to form this week and concentrate solely on his own responsibilities.
“I’ve continued to work hard. I’ve continued to stay confident. I’ve continued to believe in my guys and believe in this coaching staff and just trust what’s around me,” he said. “I understand that my job is to play quarterback and quarterback only, and to not take on any other role. I’m going to do my job to the best of my ability and let things play out.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.