By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A couple of weeks ago, West Virginia was playing for championships.
Now they are playing for survival.
A five-game winning streak has reshaped itself into a three-game losing streak. A Lamborghini turned into a Kia, filet mignon to ground round.
If, in the latest defeat, 39-38 in double overtime to TCU, the defense did show a step forward, the offense continued to struggle, its character and emphasis completely altered from early in the year. A dominant offensive line has been exposed as quite ordinary and the running game has been stagnant behind it, devoid of the injured Shawne Alston.
The wide receiver corps found fewer holes in the secondary as opponents ignore the running game in favor of concentrating their forces in the secondary, less threatened by deep threat Stedman Bailey as he tries to play through an ankle sprain.
And Geno Smith ...
What has happened to Geno Smith? He threw for eight touchdowns in one game this year, five in the past three games.
In truth, he is no longer the prime Heisman Trophy candidate on the team, that honor belonging to elusive, evasive slot receiver Tavon Austin.
While the offense has had its problems over the past five games, Austin has caught 51 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns with a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD and 76-yard punt return for a score.
His scores are hardly quiet in that they usually come only after a series of spectacular moves and magical escapes from trouble, yet he handles them modestly, just as he did the 76-yard punt return that should have won the game for WVU against TCU.
His explanation of it?
“I knew someone had to make a play,” he said.
But the reality is that the offense has struggled and Smith knows that it’s been due to the approach the defense has taken that they have been unable to counter.
“It’s the formula,” Smith said. “Everyone is backing up and won’t give up the big play. Teams are very mindful we have a very potent offense, but it’s very hard to throw against eight-man coverages on an every down basis. I don’t think TCU blitzed us but maybe five times, total.”
They laid back in coverage, rushing three and keeping maybe a linebacker in to defend against the run.
That should allow WVU to outman the defenders up front and pick them apart with the running game.
Why can’t WVU run?
“I don’t know,” Smith said. “We obviously understand we have to run the ball. We have to be a varied offense to be good. The games we excelled in and did great in we ran the ball and passed the ball well and kept the defense on its toes.
“Now lately, teams have disrespected the run game, totally disregarding it, putting just one linebacker in the box, sometimes even when we have two and three running backs in the game.”
And so the onus falls back on Smith.
“I have to figure out ways to throw the ball better,” he admitted.
In truth, to win in the Holgorsen era they need at least 300 passing yards in a game and that hasn’t come since they passed for 656 yards against Baylor. This year WVU is 4-0 when passing for 300 yards and 1-3 when failing to pass for that many yards.
So it is that Smith has to raise the level of his game but probably can’t do it without Bailey at his best and without a running game to at least distract the defense.
“Do I think I had a bad game? No. Do I think I had a great game? No,” he said. “But everything isn’t going to be perfect and you have to keep that in perspective. I played my butt off and still came up short.”
Now they have to try to find a way to get back in the running for a bowl game that would actually be a reward for a good season. It won’t be easy with the next three games at Oklahoma State, at home against Oklahoma, then at Iowa State before closing out the season at home against last-place Kansas.
“We do have games ahead of us that we have to look forward to,” Smith said. “We have to put these games behind us and not let the media, reporters or whoever is going to say we suck now or Geno Smith is a terrible quarterback or that we’re an overrated team.
“All of that is going to come out, if it hasn’t already. I’m not going to let any of it get into my head. It’s about winning or losing the game. Statistics get thrown out the window.”
NOTES: WVU’s game at Oklahoma State on Saturday will be televised on ABC at 3:30 p.m.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.