By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Much about this West Virginia University football season gone sour is different from last season, but there is one concerning similarity that the coaching staff has got to look into.
A year ago as WVU rolled into the middle of October, the Mountaineers were flying high. They had lost just one of their first six games, and that wasn’t exactly what you would call a difficult loss to take, applied by No. 2 LSU in a game in which the offense rolled up 533 total yards, 460 of them through the air.
There was much optimism in the air last year as the leaves changed colors and the temperatures began to fall. In the first two games of October, the Mountaineers scored 98 points and gave up but 26. They had combined in those two games against Bowling Green and Connecticut to compile 1,224 yards.
Move forward to this season now. WVU had played five games, not six, but owns the same five victories, LSU having been traded for a far less daunting opponent in Maryland. Again, as autumn dawned the Mountaineers were flying higher than anyone could have imagined, having defeated Baylor and Texas in succession while putting 118 points on the scoreboard — 20 more than the previous season — while a producing a prodigious 1,180 yards in those two games.
True, this year the defense had not stopped anyone, but there really was no reason to think the same midseason swoon would strike WVU again.
It did. The Mountaineers lost consecutive decisions at Texas Tech and at home against Kansas State, and were beaten soundly in each.
In truth, you can actually go back three years to Bill Stewart’s final season and find a similar pattern, a loss to LSU among five victories, then consecutive losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.
What do you make of this?
That question was put to head coach Dana Holgorsen, who now has had that happen unexpectedly in consecutive season.
“(This year) was a little bit different,” he noted. “Whenever you put two losses like that back-to-back, it is a little different.”
He also pointed out the challenges each season were somewhat different, WVU going through its final Big East season last year and its first Big 12 season this year.
“Basically,” he said, “it will boil down to bouncing back, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
A year ago, while never during the regular season regaining the dominance it displayed earlier in the season, the Mountaineers found a way to survive. The season seemed to be slipping away from them and the Big East championship with it.
They needed to win three straight over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida and did so, but by just a combined seven points.
That wasn’t exactly Murderer’s Row, and Holgorsen knows it.
“This year is different because of who we are playing,” he said. “We just played the No. 3 team in the country (Kansas State). They are a pretty good team. It is going to take a whole year of going through the Big 12 for everyone to understand the Big 12.”
The situation that now presents itself to WVU is much like last year. Instead of three games left, there are five, and they are not against Big East-like opponents, beginning on Saturday with TCU, then followed by Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State and finally lowly Kansas.
Like he did a year ago and Stewart did the previous season, Holgorsen has to find a lot of answers, especially since the offense has fallen so far to match the futility of the defense.
“We have to make things more manageable,” Holgorsen said. “We can’t try to manufacture plays or people. We can’t come up with tricks, because that is not the solution.”
In truth, when things go bad, a team has to go back to basics, to simplify and narrow the scope of what you do so that you do only what you do best.
“We have been talking about what we are good at on all three sides of the ball, and how we get back to doing those things,” he said.
“We have narrowed down some things. We are going to focus on trying to get better at things that we are already good at. We will build some confidence because of that. We will rebuild and re-energize, as we prepare for our next game,” he said.
The off-week was spent regrouping, recruiting and rebuilding. This week will be spent on preparing for TCU, to putting in the things that they believe will turn them around and get them back on track, something the Mountaineers have been pretty good at doing over the past few years.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.