By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
First, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me assure you that as this football season was born I was as guilty as everyone else in my belief that West Virginia University was fielding a team capable of challenging for and maybe even winning a national championship.
Certainly, I was not alone in this, but that matters not.
Oh, there was that voice that seems to gnaw away at my consciousness in such moments when I am getting carried away with myself, a voice that continued to shout out, “Are you crazy? This is West Virginia!”
Normally, those who know or have read me over far more years than anyone has a right to be writing, know my knee-jerk reaction is normally a negative one. I’m the guy that gets upset over his team scoring a touchdown because its kickoff team is not very good, the guy who points out that a batter who has hit two home runs doesn’t have a real good chance of hitting a third and wants the manager to pinch hit for him.
Then you had West Virginia, which never had won a national championship. “Why now?” was what I should have been thinking.
But here I was, like so many others, hooked on the memories that flowed out of the Clemson victory in the Orange Bowl that had us all buying into the idea this would be an inspired team moving into the Big 12, a team that figured to be much improved during a second season in Dana Holgorsen’s offense.
Where was the voice then to tell me to look beyond the Clemson game, to remember that last season’s team had lost at Syracuse and at home against Louisville, that its final six Big East games produced those two losses and along with a 10-point victory over Rutgers and three season-saving wins over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida by a combined seven points.
That could have been three losses in a row rather than three victories, and the Clemson game never would have happened.
Had I spotted that, had I really looked at the defense, which was going to feature a coordinator who never before had coordinated, a head coach whose sole concern throughout his coaching career had been on the offensive side, and a group of unproven kids, I might not have been so shocked by what has transpired of late.
West Virginia was, in reality, a head coach’s worst nightmare coming into the season … a team that was badly overrated.
See, there’s a lot of nice recognition coming from opening as a high national ranking, but then a coach finds himself in a can’t-win situation. If he plays really well, he was supposed to do so, and if his team flops, plays maybe as it really should have, then he looks as if he has failed.
With all that in mind and with the Mountaineers caught up in a two-game losing streak in which they have been outscored, 104-28, and another tough game on the horizon in TCU, I opted to ask Holgorsen if, perhaps, we outsiders had overrated his team coming into the season.
“I don’t know,” he began, many thoughts sifting through his mind. “Everyone has an opinion on preseason rankings. They are based on the end of last year and how many guys that we have coming back.”
While that is all we have, it really isn’t enough, Holgorsen said.
“It doesn’t matter what happened last year,” he said.
Clemson was a memory, perhaps even an apparition. Certainly, it is different getting ready for a team over the period of a month than on a weekly basis. Skills can become sharpened or rusted; mindsets are fickle things, and there are a totally different set of incentives in bowl play than in regular-season college play.
Certainly, Holgorsen admitted, he was worried about the way his team was being swooned over even before there was a missed tackle or an uncovered receiver running merrily through his secondary.
“I stood up here before the Marshall game and said that it doesn’t matter what happened last year,” he said. “This is a different team. I said it was going to take multiple games to see what we are made of.”
People, yours truly included, became thrilled when they saw the passing accuracy of quarterback Geno Smith, the receiving skills of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, the running of Shawne Alston as Marshall was overpowered, 69-34.
Odd, wasn’t it, that we saw the 69 points but forgave the 34 Marshall scored, registering some sign of fright but allowing leeway for it being the first game in a new system.
Two relatively easy victories over James Madison and Maryland followed, and then when WVU put 70 up on Baylor with Smith throwing for eight touchdowns and 656 yards — honest, he did! — we barely noticed that it took all 70 of those points to win by seven.
Oh, the praise that was being heaped on everyone, save for the defense, which we knew wasn’t good but which had been good enough.
“We tell our team not to worry about what the paper says, what the rankings say, what the television says or what the Internet says,” Holgorsen revealed. “This week we are saying all of people that said you were great are now saying you are so bad. Why pay attention? Pay attention to what we say in here.
“Worry about your academics and worry about your health. Do a good job of getting in the weight room and getting bigger and stronger,” Holgorsen continued. “When you have practice, don’t go through the motions. Go out and get better.”
These two weeks without a game have been directed toward correcting the mistakes of the last two games, toward refocusing the mind on the thing that matter and cutting the team off from the outside influences.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.