There is enough blame to go around on WVU football team
MORGANTOWN - It's been obvious for weeks that West Virginia hasn't wanted to be part of the Big East anymore.
It seems the Mountaineers' football team might be taking that literally ... and way too early.
So, because WVU hasn't played anywhere close to expectations, it's likely too late to salvage a conference title and BCS berth before moving to the Big 12 and facing five teams that are in one or both national polls this week.
West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) is in a three-way tie for fourth place in a league in which it was the overwhelming preseason choice to win a title.
WVU goes to league-leading No. 23 Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0) Saturday, and the Mountaineers get a break in that the game isn't at the on-campus Nippert Stadium, but at downtown Paul Brown Stadium ... not exactly the "Jungle" even when the NFL Bengals are playing there.
Then WVU comes home to face Pitt (4-5, 2-2) in a Thanksgiving Friday morning or night game (11 a.m. or 7 p.m. kickoff), a "Backyard Brawl" of Big East disappointing foes. Six nights later, USF (4-4, 0-4) - looking for anything to salvage a season - awaits WVU.
If the Mountaineers can't win out and get oodles of help, they're going to have more December questions than this one:
Does anyone have the phone number for the Belk Bowl?
In a 38-35 loss to Louisville (5-4, 3-1) on Saturday, WVU suffered its second home defeat of the season. The program hasn't had two Mountaineer Field losses in a single season since 2003 (Wisconsin, Cincinnati).
WVU allowed more than 30 points for the fifth time in nine games. That hasn't happened since five occurrences in 2002. It only happened three times, total, in the past four seasons (2007-10).
It's not all defense, however. It's special teams. It's even offense. WVU has as many turnovers as it's gained (14), and has won the turnover battle only twice (Bowling Green, Rutgers).
Nine games into Coach Dana Holgorsen's debut season, there seems a lot of detachment among the Mountaineers. Even the body language, starting with Holgorsen, is not good.
When a safety (Darwin Cook) takes a bad angle and misses a tackle that turns a Louisville in-the-flat pass into 26 yards right before halftime, and the head coach, an "offensive guy," walks as far away from the line of scrimmage as possible in the coaching box and just stands there, arms folded, don't you think that kind of "I'm no part of this" reaction is bookmarked by the players?
The sense I have is that the WVU offense and defense remain two separate teams, not just different units. It has to affect special teams play, too.
The Mountaineers don't play smart. They don't exude that toughness, that blue-collar element that was a hallmark when former Coach Rich Rodriguez was building a program in Morgantown. They throw the ball all over the lot - and do it well - but what else?
When WVU gets 533 yards total offense at home as it did Saturday, it should win.
And despite what Holgorsen said postgame, it's about more than a 10-point swing on a blocked field goal-turned touchdown, or another missed FG, or punts of 12 and 11 yards that don't flip the field.
Coaches are famed for bulletin board material. Well, Louisville Coach Charlie Strong said something Saturday that maybe Holgorsen should post for the Mountaineers to read.
"We have overcome adversity all year long," Strong said, "and I just told them before the game it is not so much about just playing hard, playing smart or playing with emotion, it's about you yourself going out and doing your job. If you yourself do your job, and your teammate does his job, then we have the confidence and trust that we will get it done."
It's about a whole team being on the same page, and WVU still hasn't jelled. Holgorsen's job, now, is about much more than calling plays. It's about getting his first club - all of it - to overcome the adversity and malaise that has struck especially since Big East play began.
Think back. WVU was struggling with Connecticut at halftime (a 10-9 score) at home, before picking apart the Huskies in the second half. The Mountaineers got their helmets handed to them at Syracuse. A halftime wake-up call at Rutgers worked, but then WVU couldn't cope with a Louisville team that came to town ranked No. 103 nationally in total offense.
WVU can't get out of the blocks, either. It has led at the end of the first quarter in only two of nine games. While everyone around WVU has been talking about quarterback Geno Smith - "unbelievable," Strong said admiringly - and the passing game, the rebuilding defense hasn't matured as expected.
There were those around the WVU program that thought the second-half play at Rutgers, in the lousy, snowy, windy conditions, was a turning point for the Mountaineers, that in coming back to win with grit and resiliency, that they finally figured out who they should be.
Well, maybe not.
"I don't know we consider it a step back," WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said when asked about what followed after pitching a second-half shutout at Rutgers. "We miss a play ... a kid doesn't get his hat in the right spot on a (55)-yard run that ends up a touchdown. We don't do real good job on a pass route on another one ..."
And with the game on the line, Louisville takes 7:11 to go 13 plays and 76 yards for the clinching score, converting two third downs and a fourth down in the process.
There's one previously legitimate excuse the WVU defense can use no more. Yes, the unit didn't give up the first blocked FG for a touchdown against WVU in seven seasons (Virginia Tech, 2004), but it's often looked like Smith is passing his way through it in Big East play.
"Obviously, we have to continue to get better," Casteel said. "If it's 38-35, what was it, we can't give up 38. If we're going to do that, you have to score 39. You know, we're not getting it done.
"I don't know you can say it's a lack of experience (anymore). I think it's a lack of understanding how important every play during the week is. You know, you have to make plays ... When you're playing young people, you don't get do-overs. You don't get a 'reload it' on Saturday.
"The kids, I think they're getting better, but those are the things you have to understand, You've got to make plays when you get your opportunities, so I don't think you can say it's inexperience in Game 9."
There's a lot more to it. If Holgorsen and his team can't figure out its direction going into the real meat of the WVU conference schedule, then perhaps a Compass or Beef O'Brady's Bowl awaits.
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.