By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The most difficult part of finding the proper buttons to push on a team gone wrong, as West Virginia University’s Mountaineers have this season, is not found in the x’s and o’s of the game.
This is especially true with this 3-5 football team that has won only once in the Big 12 and that is staring at the very real possibility of being home for Christmas rather than at a bowl game for the first time since 2001, needing to win three of its final four games to avoid that.
In WVU’s case, the o’s have been proven over and over and even the x’s, far less proven, were working quite well early in the season, even against such powerful teams as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
No one expected a championship team in what was a rebuilding year that saw three key offensive players move on to the NFL and an experienced and skilled offensive line be decimated by graduation, but what has transpired has been worse than anyone anticipated.
What the coaching staff needed to find was a way to maximize the talent that was on hand, but that is a tricky psychological chore for you have on your hands a group of athletes who have known nothing but success growing up and through high school and don’t know how to react when things go bad.
On the offensive side, for example, WVU’s players have made things more difficult rather than easier, according to offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, by reacting in the worst possible way to the difficulties.
The first thing that happens is the confidence goes and that creates doubts.
As this season has played out, this Mountaineer team resides in the Land of Doubts.
“I don’t think overall anyone’s confidence is great,” Dawson said.
But here comes the real twist.
“I think our biggest problem is we’re trying to do too much,” said Dawson.
He didn’t mean too many plays were being thrown at the team. He meant that kids were trying to do things they weren’t capable of doing or being asked to do.
“There are two things that kill offenses good and bad,” Dawson said. “If you’re having a lot of success people tend to relax; you think it’s easy, and you start sputtering. But then, when you are going bad, you tend to try to press and do too much when, in all reality, it’s best if you just do your job. Do what you’re told to do; do what you’re coached to do. If everyone does their job, that’s when things start rolling.”
No one plays at his best when tense in any sport, and football is no different. You have to approach each play with a clear mind, with an understanding of what your role is and not try to be Batman when your role is that of Robin on the play.
“It’s not like we want to play bad. Everybody is playing hard but trying too much. You need to relax and do your job,” Dawson said.
That is easy to say, but these are 18- to 22-or-so-year-old kids, and it’s difficult to get them to understand that concept.
“It’s hard to get me to understand that sometimes,” Dawson said.
Try telling a running back who needs 3 yards for a first down that struggling to get 5 may cause a fumble or a quarterback who needs 12 yards for a first down not to throw the ball to a covered receiver 12 yards downfield when a back out of the backfield can be safely hit 5 yards out, putting the ball in his had to try and make the first down.
“Yeah, it’s hard to understand because it probably goes against human nature,” Dawson said. “When things go bad you tend to want to try harder. It’s not trying harder. It’s relaxing, playing at a calm and even level.”
It’s no different on defense.
“I can’t really put a thumb on it,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “Sometimes, yes, they are trying to do too much. I do not know what it was.
“If you ask them what happened and why would you not peel that running back, they just look at you. Sometimes you just get caught up in the game. Things happen so fast, and you just get caught in the moment. You are playing so hard every play; then all of a sudden it hits you. It comes down to making sure you can focus and win the game.”
Is that why, in this past game, holder Mike Molinari tried a fake field goal and tried to run for a touchdown when the look wasn’t right?
Certainly, it’s food for thought as to why that might have happened.
It is as defensive coordinator Keith Patterson often says, “It’s hard to understand what goes on in the mind of one of these kids.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.