By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Dana Holgorsen’s head coaching career is not yet 10 games old, but he has already reached a crucial moment in his first year, traveling to Cincinnati with a team that has lost two of its past three games and that will have no chance at winning the Big East championship if it loses to the unbeaten league leaders.
With his first West Virginia University team’s record at 6-3 and coming off a disappointing 38-35 loss to Louisville at home, a loss in which the Mountaineers displayed little energy or excitement and in which they made far too many critical errors to win, Holgorsen has decided that the only way he can win is allow only those players committed to excellence to make the trip.
Twice during his Tuesday press conference he referred to taking 50 or 55 players on the road with him, a couple of dozen or more fewer than would normally make the trip.
And if anyone thought he was kidding about that, he was not. This was not to save money but to save face.
“I’m pretty serious about it, and you guys may have noticed I tend to say what’s on my mind,” he said. “We’re going to take whoever wants to win and whoever wants to pull for teammates and wants to be all in on this thing, not guys who pout and mope because they’re not playing and the rest of it. We’re going to be a united team, and the only way I know to get that accomplished is to take guys who are focused and headed in the right direction.”
Holgorsen is demanding his players accept the program as it is.
“It’s buying into the system,” he said. “They have to buy into what’s being said from a head coach standpoint to a coordinator standpoint to a position coach standpoint. It’s not my team; it’s their team.
“We do our best to organize it in a way that puts them out there in the best position and then it’s really about how they play. Our job is to put them in position to win. We’ve got to have guys that invested enough in the program that they step up and give their absolute best all the time.
“The leaders pinpoint guys who aren’t buying in, and they slap them around to the point they get them to buy in.”
The leaders seem to understand where Holgorsen is coming from.
“I agree with him,” quarterback Geno Smith said. “I have confidence in the guys in the locker room. I know how hard we work. I know we don’t want to go out and lose. It’s very embarrassing. We want to win every game, and we believe we can win every game.
“It’s just some people don’t show effort on every single snap. It’s a learning process. You have to play hard and as tough as you can because every team is going to play you as tough as they can.”
Senior defensive tackle Julian Miller, another leader, says he hasn’t noticed it being a problem but “hearing it from Coach Holgorsen, I believe it. I completely understand it. If it’s out there, he’s seeing it.”
Miller said he thought the job had been taken care of by the leaders in the summer and in camp, “but as the season has gone on some of us have gotten off track.”
And now they are running out of track.
Holgorsen is facing a difficult coaching situation, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a young head coach who has to discover what works and doesn’t work. He has preached to his team all year that they must stay on an even keel, that preparation for each game must be the same because each game carries the same meaning ... one loss.
Now, all of a sudden, that one loss carries a lot more meaning, for it knocks his team out of contention, so he has to come up with something. He sees it as being quite similar to the Rutgers game, which was played on the road after a dismal performance at Syracuse.
“What we’re trying to obtain as a program is staying here a long time and establishing the way it is all the time to the point this isn’t about thinking we get up one week and not another week. The league we’re going to (the Big 12) is full of a whole bunch of talented teams. Regardless of the way it’s been here in the past, the team that figures that out — that you have to play to the best of your ability every week and lay it on the line — is the team that will win it all.
“It’s a lot like two weeks ago,” Holgorsen said. “We went up to Syracuse and got beat up. The next week we challenged them and went to Rutgers and played good enough to win. Our goal is to win the Big East. We’re hanging on to that hope, but we have to win this week for that to happen.”
They have to win this week ... and more.
The rest of the schedule is fraught with peril. After Cincinnati there is the Backyard Brawl with an angry team from Pittsburgh that has suffered through a disappointing, injury-filled season, and then they close on the road at South Florida, a team that has not had a lot of success but that will be playing at home and creates a lot of matchup problems for the Mountaineers.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.