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WVU football: Mountaineers regain edge that’s been missing

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Louisville freshman Andrew Johnson scooped up that blocked field goal at Mountaineer Field on Nov. 5 and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown, it enacted a 10-point swing in the game the Cardinals won by three points.

West Virginia football Coach Dana Holgorsen said that one play wasn't the reason the Mountaineers lost the game. I disagree.

Johnson punctuated the score by blowing kisses to the crowd. The faux affection earned him a 15-yard penalty, but it was a mere footnote when the head coach, Charlie Strong, was crowd surfing in the visitor's locker room a little while later.

Louisville played with an edge. WVU has lacked that edge most of the season and allowed Johnson to get away with the sarcastic smooches. This is not to say there should have been retribution. This is to say it should have never happened in the first place.

The Mountaineers lost their luster somewhere along the way this season, so much so that Holgorsen threatened to not take players on the road for Saturday's win against Cincinnati. The Mountaineers won that game because they rediscovered a swagger and showcased it. A lot. It was the difference in a game that they maybe didn't deserve to win.

True, it's hard to say you don't deserve a win when you get one, especially amid the circumstances that saturated the one against Cincinnati, but that looked like it would have a bad ending.

The game was on the road. WVU was the underdog. The opponent was ranked and on a six-game winning streak. The Bearcats took a 7-0 lead after just three plays. The Mountaineers made so many errors that you really have to marvel that they ended up victorious.

How they won is what mattered most. What defined the most meaningful victory of the season is what WVU declined to show in the losses before it. The Mountaineers wouldn't be denied.

"We encouraged them to play on the edge and I think that was the difference in us being able to win," Holgorsen said. "We cut loose."

The first touchdown triggered a sideline celebration that stopped just short of a Gatorade shower for Holgorsen. When Julian Miller recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, the Mountaineers somehow didn't get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, though they did everything to earn one but grab an official's flag and throw it in the air.

After Eain Smith blocked the field goal on the final play, WVU's players and coaches rushed the field and Geno Smith had a lot of fun mixing it up with the Cincinnati students.

These were all things Holgorsen talked about after that loss to Louisville. There were plenty of problems with technique and execution, but WVU wasn't solely concerned with what happened on the field. Holgorsen compared WVU's sideline to Louisville's on specific plays.

"Theirs was clearly more energetic," Holgorsen said "Our biggest goal was to get them to the point they were cheering for everyone."

And darn if it didn't work. The Mountaineers were no longer being dictated to emotionally. They were doing the things opponents had been doing against them. Now WVU (7-3, 3-2 Big East) is only a game behind Cincinnati for the Big East lead as it prepares to play host to Pitt (5-5, 3-2) Nov. 25. The 7 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN.

"Personally, I looked directly at the Syracuse game," Smith said. "We faced adversity and I wasn't being the leader I normally am out there. I was pouting a little bit. I looked at that and looked myself in the eye and said no matter what, I've got to be a leader. I can't be a front-runner."

WVU had plenty of opportunities to slip, trip or fall against the Bearcats. Believe that was a concern, too, especially admit 14 penalties, failed third down conversions, four Cincinnati plays of 40 yards or more, some bad punts, a blocked field goal and a missed field goal. The Mountaineers have folded at times this season.

"I've seen guys quit," Holgorsen said. "We've had a tendency at times when things went wrong that we had specific people or units quit."

Buoyed by their bravado, they instead stayed in the game and won it. Of course, they were almost undone by their energy and effort, too. Players said they wanted to win the Cincinnati game more than any other but the LSU one.

That was the only time they felt their energy was comparable and the last time they felt anything similar to what they felt against the Bearcats.

But some of those penalties for holding or unsportsmanlike conduct or jumping offsides to block a field goal can be tied to trying too hard. Some of the errors made in missing tackles come from trying to blow up an opponent. Some negative running plays happen when a player chooses a 40-yard gain over a 4-yard gain. The Mountaineers were sometimes so invested in emotion that it threatened to bankrupt them.

"We played on the edge a little bit and went over a little bit, which I think you need to do sometimes to increase your energy and excitement level," Holgorsen said. "You've got to be able to control that now."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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