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November 11, 2011

Bailey’s big grabs

Sophomore receiver has caught almost everything thrown his way

MORGANTOWN — It would not have been more shocking if Superman had lost his cape.

It was as difficult to imagine as Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut women losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as Ted Williams striking out with the bases loaded to end a World Series, as Jerry West, “Mr. Clutch,” missing two free throws with his team down a point in the final second of the NBA Finals at the height of his career.

It couldn’t happen … yet it did.

Stedman Bailey dropped a pass.

Not one, but passes.

And one of them was in the end zone.

“He’s human,” said Dana Holgorsen, the coach at West Virginia University.

Until those moments, there was some doubt to that.

He had caught everything thrown in the same area code in which he was running his pattern, even in last week’s three-point loss to Louisville.

Oh, he did have the drops, but he caught eight other passes for 118 yards, his sixth 100-yard performance of the season, some of the catches bordering on incredible.

“He made two catches in the game that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Holgorsen said.

And a week earlier, in the cold and wet and snow at Rutgers, he gone high in the air in double coverage, reached up with one hand and tapped the ball to himself so he could gather it in just before falling out of the back of the end zone for a touchdown.

Same guy.

As they say, stuff happens.

“He dropped two that were given to him, but overall, he’s playing pretty well,” Holgorsen said. “He needs to make those plays, but it just happens sometimes. Justin Blackmon is the best receiver in college football, and he dropped it on the goal line. Is he human? I didn’t think he was, but he’s shown that everybody is.”

Blackmon is the defending Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver from Oklahoma State, a receiver Holgorsen molded into that award winner in his one season as offensive coordinator at the school.

Bailey, just a sophomore, has a chance to be all that Blackmon is and more. His season has been nothing short of incredible. While Tavon Austin, the slot receiver on his side, has caught more passes, ranking 17th in the nation with 7 a game, Bailey is averaging more yardage, 103.67 per game to rank 15th in the country while his total yards, 933, are 13th.

So what happens? How does a glue-fingered, athletic receiver like Bailey miss the easiest passes he has thrown to him?

He explained it on Wednesday as he and his teammates prepared for the showdown on the Ohio River against the league-leading Cincinnati Bearcats at noon Saturday.

“I think it’s just a matter of concentration. I kind of just lost concentration. It was like they were too easy and I relaxed and it slipped through my hands,” he said.

“Nobody felt worse than he did about the dropped passes,” Holgorsen said.

In some ways it’s part of the game. You can’t appreciate how good you are until you realize just how hard it is to make plays, even sometimes the simplest of plays.

Certainly, it does not detract from what he has accomplished to date.

“For the most part, I’ve done what I set out to do,” he said. “In the beginning of the season, I knew what I was capable of. With the opportunities here in this dynamic offense, I felt I would be able to do something big. It was just a matter of staying healthy.”

He’s done that and figures this week against Cincinnati to go beyond 1,000 receiving yards, needing just 67 to reach the four-figure plateau.

That would seem to be well within his grasp as Cincinnati, while finding ways to win games, has not found any ways to stop a strong passing attack like WVU’s, ranking 105th in the nation in pass defense.

WVU enters the game with the nation’s seventh-best passing attack and geared up for a game they have to win to keep their slim BCS bid alive. It is a challenge unlike any other they have faced.

“We kind of have a bad taste in our mouth from losing to Louisville and know Cincinnati is a pretty good team. We have to come out and give them our best game without making the mistakes we’ve made in the past,” Bailey said.

“We have something to prove. We still have faith and think we can win the Big East. We have to win out.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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