Mountaineers need some grit
In seven games as a major college head football coach, Dana Holgorsen has figured out a lot ... like the fact that Big East officiating is not quite up to what he previously saw in the Big 12.
One thing the first-year West Virginia coach hasn't gotten a handle on, however, is what makes his team tick, especially when it is facing adversity.
The template on how to beat WVU is out there, and expect the remainder of the Mountaineer schedule - starting at Rutgers (5-2, 2-1 Big East) on Saturday - to try and mimic what LSU and Syracuse did in pounding WVU.
In those defeats, both by more than four-touchdown margins - West Virginia was roundhoused but didn't punch back much. Toughness is lacking, and to be honest, grit has been waning since former Coach Rich Rodriguez bolted Morgantown in December 2007.
Holgorsen knows it, and to his credit, he has no fear in bringing it up regularly with the media, albeit in ways that are as airy as his offense. But I wonder whether that wide-openness - on the field, not in his interviews - contributes to WVU's seeming shortcomings in tug-of-war.
Holgorsen has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that his team gets off to slow starts. The Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1) seem to have a mindset that "everything will be fine" once Geno Smith begins hitting 20- and 30-yard passes.
The Mountaineers have struggled mightily to stop the run against quality teams. That 3-3-5 odd stack defense doesn't see the run much when it's quality versus quality in practice, because WVU spends most of its time on Holgorsen's offense and perfecting a passing game.
If you don't get enough work stopping the run in practice, how do you fare between the tackles in a game when the opponents are run blocking you into the secondary? Also, your linebackers are constantly reminded not to hit the quarterback when you push past the pocket-forming big 'uns (and teammates) in practice.
The reverse? WVU really has no consistent run game to speak of (ranked 100th of 120 major teams in rush offense) ... and will Holgoball be able to do what it does best when the Big East chill of mid-November arrives? Morgantown isn't Stillwater, Houston or Lubbock, you know.
Does that spread-the-field game contribute to an inability to get the tough yards, or make the tough tackles? Does the preference for four wides leave quarterback Geno Smith too vulnerable - as was the case for too long in Friday's WVU debacle at Syracuse?
The big issue, however, was effort. Syracuse was way into it more than WVU long before the Carrier Dome crowd began to make things really noisy.
"We were outcoached and outplayed," Holgorsen said on his Sunday night media conference call.
"They played with more effort, more energy and more excitement. If I could figure out why that was the case, then I would be writing books. I don't have an answer as to why that's the case, but clearly we were outcoached and outplayed."
He'd better find the answer. That's part of the reason he has a six-year contract approaching $12 million, plus incentives.
WVU has real trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks. Bruce Irvin, the one-trick pony pass rusher who was supposed to star this season, rarely has been a factor. The Mountaineer defense has lost the battle up front in both of its losses, and in significant fashion.
Holgorsen was asked whether the Mountaineers grasp that they were beaten by Syracuse not because the Orange has more talent - it doesn't - but because of other intangibles.
"You tell them exactly what happened, which is why you coach and that's what we did," Holgorsen said. "We showed them exactly what happened. It doesn't take kids very long to figure it out as far as what's on tape.
"You look at what's on tape and you see yourself get outplayed by your opponent, and it typically motivates you. We're not going to change how we do anything around here. We have a weekly schedule that we're going to abide by, and we're going to do everything we possibly can to get them motivated to play on Saturday afternoon."
In one fashion, Syracuse didn't do anything differently than it did last October at Mountaineer Field, when the Orange stopped an eight-game losing streak in a series in which they had been winning two out of three before then.
As SU offensive tackle Justin Pugh boiled it down: "We took a look at the LSU film and (the Tigers) kind of punched them in the mouth. They had the kind of mentality we had last year. We just wanted to go out there and make sure we were physical up front."
West Virginia needs to forget how it got to 5-2 and figure out how it can get to 10-2.
"You don't want to think it, but maybe we needed this to happen," WVU senior defensive lineman Julian Miller said after the lopsided loss. "We can't keep playing the way we have been and expect to get through the rest of the season, especially on the defensive side ... We have to learn from this loss."
WVU needs to work on its run game, and work against the run game.
Since 2005, when Big East football reconstituted with Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida, West Virginia is 33-11 in league play, or six games better than the next best (Cincinnati 27-17).
The Mountaineers have gotten there because they've had better speed, better talent, better tradition ... but something else.
WVU has prospered because it's often been tougher than a $2 steak.
If West Virginia wants 2011 to be a filet mignon kind of season, it needs to play with more gristle.
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-7949.