By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If West Virginia is a long way from being the team Rich Rodriguez put together in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a team that strung together three consecutive 11-victory seasons, it is not as far away from respectability as this year’s 4-6 record might suggest going into the final two games of the year.
Other than a blowout loss to Baylor, which clearly is the class of the Big 12, WVU has shown itself to be competitive in what clearly was a rebuilding season within the conference from the start.
Indeed, the Mountaineers upset Oklahoma State, dropped a tough 16-7 decision to Oklahoma and lost by a touchdown in overtime to Texas this past Saturday night.
That they could not pull off the upsets of Oklahoma and Texas leaves the Mountaineers facing the mission of having to win at Kansas and at home against Iowa State to reach .500 and bowl eligibility.
Considering neither of those teams has won a Big 12 game, the season remains salvageable, which is a positive considering expectations were not very high coming off a year in which they lost Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Everyone knew there was no established quarterback on hand when the year started, just as the offensive line was inexperienced and the wide receivers unproven.
Perhaps there have been too many losses up to this point despite that, but the question is more whether the losses signified ineptitude or simply growing pains.
Certainly there was much to be taken out of the disappointment of the Texas game to make you wonder if WVU isn’t closer to moving forward than the results of this season would indicate.
“It would have been a good win for us,’’ WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said, “but we just weren’t able to make the plays when it counts, which is tough to take.”
No one will offer praise over giving up five turnovers and six sacks, which cost the services of the starting quarterback, Clint Trickett, who left with “his bell rung” to turn the game over to backup Paul Millard. No one will praise allowing 47 points, although it must be understood that the defense was constantly under the pressure of poor field position set up by the turnovers and sacks.
As it has been all season, it is almost as if WVU is a team with a split personality, from week to week, from possession to possession.
How did they lose to Texas?
You can go to the third downs and understand how, for they led at the half after holding Texas to just one of nine on third down conversions.
In the second half things changed and Texas converted 9 of 13 times on third down, changing the entire complexion of the game.
In truth, though, the outcome of the game came down to two fourth down plays.
The first came with the game one second into the final minute, Texas trailing, 40-37, with the ball at the WVU 47, fourth and 7. The Longhorns took a timeout, discussed their options, came up with a pass to Jaxon Shipley, and completed it.
“We get them to fourth down, game on the line, got the exact call we want,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “We’re about to hit the quarterback when we back up, sit there and let him catch it right at the sticks.”
That led to a tying field goal, giving them a chance at the go-ahead touchdown in overtime, putting WVU in a must-score-a-TD situation.
A 20-yard run by Mario Alford, who earlier had caught a 72-yard scoring pass, put WVU in position to score at the 5 but three plays produced only a yard.
Now it was WVU facing a fourth down, but it really had no chance due to the pass rush.
“We had three throws and we didn’t get it done,” Millard said. “You’ve got to give credit to Texas. It sucks, but that’s what it is.”
Millard’s first two passes on the goal line were batted away by defenders. The third, coming on fourth down, had no chance, throwing for Alford but being intercepted by linebacker Mark Edmund.
Millard did as much in relief as you could expect. He completed 16 of 32 passes for 259 yards but was constantly harassed, fumbling four times, losing two of them to go with the two interceptions.
Millard stood up and took responsibility for the turnovers, although in truth it had a lot to do with the offensive line letting him down.
“That’s just me holding the ball too long,” he said. “They were bringing more guys than we could block, so I’ve got to get the ball out of my hand. Those turnovers were not good.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.