The Mountaineers are dangerously teetering on the edge, staring down the barrel of what could easily flounder into a five-game losing streak with contests against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia has been drubbed, it has been beaten up front and at the skill slots, it has been bettered in terms of execution, coaching, special teams and fundamentals. And, now, perhaps the worst domino of all has fallen: A last-second, crushing defeat in a very winnable game under the best of circumstances.
While TCU played last week, West Virginia got healthier and worked fundamentals. The Mountaineers came off a home game, had a bye week, and faced another home game against a battered opponent with a freshman quarterback and arguably lesser depth and talent. It was a perfect storm whipped up for Texas Christian, yet the psychological clouds now hang heavy over Morgantown over an epic collapse over the final 90 seconds. This is the kind of defeat that can break a season, and the horizon doesn’t seem any brighter over the next two weeks.
“It’s quiet. Lot of disappointment,” Bruce said of the post-game atmosphere. “That’s the gist. We really came into this game expecting to win, and it hurts.”
West Virginia, despite its own expectations, did very little to claim a key game with a myriad of opportunities. It missed passes. It missed the potential for far more solid gains in the run game. It missed field goals, and its coaching decisions were perplexing at times, especially the decision to throw deep on third down prior to Tyler Bitancurt’s 55-yard field goal try with 13 seconds left. One play doesn’t a game make. And, one could argue, if that pass is hit it seems like a genius call. But therein lies the fine line between genius and insanity, and with that, the WVU staff was venturing into the latter. In that situation, one gets the kicker a few more key yards with which to work.
It was a microcosm of the whole game. It’s no one aspect. It’s a call here or there, a decision by the staff or quarterback or running back or secondary. It’s a momentary lack of focus that does a team in. And that’s the most glaring issue for West Virginia, this focus. It isn’t for 60 minutes. And that’s down to every player and every staff member.
The examples are ample even when considering only the final few drives and overtime. WVU allowed a 94-yard touchdown pass when it failed to cover a wideout that had been pushed out of bounds. It had a game-winning field goal blocked, allowed a trick play for score, allowed a two-point conversion for the win. The potential victory was like a game of hot potato. Neither team showed it wanted it. TCU muffed a punt, it fumbled four times, losing two, it missed a half-dozen plays downfield because of a freshman quarterback. And yet West Virginia, via its own miscues, allowed the Horned Frogs to escape, and that’s exactly what it felt like.
This wasn’t simply a loss. This was a gut-wrencher. Not of the 1996 Miami variety. Not of that depth and disgust against a hated foe. But, like Miami in ’96, the finality of it all has begun to set in with a last-second defeat. WVU was thumped by Syracuse a week after Miami. It was blasted by Virginia Tech. And its excellent start evaporated, an 8-4 shell of a season remaining after reaching the top 15 with a 7-0 start. That 5-0 record written about here, with all its moles looking like beauty marks, has come undone, the ugliness of the mental and physical errors and decisions now glaring. The main execution West Virginia might have had on Saturday was its own. Because, like that ’96 team, these Mountaineers still have a pair of marquee foes ahead, and there’s simply no reason to think West Virginia has any chance against the nation’s top ranked offense this week, or a skilled Oklahoma team Nov. 17.
The cure all, quarterback Geno Smith says, is simply winning. That, through five games, covered some issues, mainly the uber-defensiveness shown by Dana Holgorsen when he flips to his brooding side. It put some salve on the defensive woes, made some of the youthful mistakes seem of lesser importance than perhaps they were. But the formula is out there now: Drop eight defenders, make West Virginia run, beat the Mountaineers up front and throw ‘till your arm falls off on the other side of the ball. Formula 3, WVU 0.
So if, indeed, winning is the answer, the question then becomes how does one win. And that’s where, scarily, the answers are lacking. How to better the run game, per Smith: “I don’t know.” Better passing: “I don’t know.” From the defensive coaches: “Focus.” But how to do that? How do you suddenly hone in players that have shown they can’t be honed in? It reads here that I certainly don’t know.
The simple truth is that much of this is linked. Making plays in the run game makes for plays in the pass game. Better blocking makes for easier run plays. It really is, and Holgorsen nailed this, all in the fundamentals. West Virginia isn’t fundamentally sound, and, until it is, all those early wins now echo hollow. It isn’t all gloom and doom. The program is building, working on better players in better positions for better outcomes. These aren’t, despite claims, the darkest days. But there’s also no question the Mountaineers are approaching a slide unmatched numerically since 1986, and realistically, since 2001, when Rutgers broke up what could have been an eight-game streak.
It’s staring them in the face, this skid. There’s a frantic groping and grasping for answers. The first place to look, across the board, is in the mirror.