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WVU football: Reputation carrying Mountaineers into Big 12

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- So much of the reputation West Virginia carries into its first season in the Big 12 has to do with what has happened before.

The Mountaineers figure to be good - media and coaches agree - particularly with so much talent back on offense. The conference's preseason media poll placed them second behind Oklahoma.

A collection of 57 college coaches, including WVU's Dana Holgorsen, ranked them No. 11 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, and behind only Oklahoma in the Big 12.

This premature positioning is about what teams have done lately, perhaps including WVU's 70-33 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

The greatest achievement that night, beyond everything in the Rolodex of records, was overshadowing what had come before that night.

"A struggle," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.

WVU went 3-1 in its final four regular-season games, losing 38-35 to Louisville before winning at Cincinnati (24-21), against Pitt (21-20) and at South Florida (30-27).

In the other nine games, the Mountaineers averaged 41.8 points and, admittedly, were a little spoiled.

"If you compare every game to Clemson, then I've struggled in every game I've ever coached," Dawson said. "But I've heard this from a lot of people and I've read it, but success slows you down as much as failure does. You start thinking, 'Man, this is getting easy.' Then the kids have a lull."

The Mountaineers were ranked No. 11 as it went to Syracuse in the seventh game of the year. WVU lost, 49-23, but rolled in the snow a week later at Rutgers, rebounding from a 31-21 halftime deficit to win 41-31.

"We started looking for home run plays too much," WVU wide receiver Stedman Bailey said. "This year, we take a look back at last year and realize, 'OK, we were trying to come up with the big plays too early or too much.' We know we need to play our game, which is to go play by play and just get positive yards."

If the Mountaineers were derailed in the Carrier Dome, the natural reaction after the Rutgers win was that things were on track after averaging 6.3 yards per play in bad conditions.

Yet WVU sputtered for stretches of the next four games, going from 6.8 yards per play against Louisville to 5.4, 5.9 and 5.4 in the next three.

The Mountaineers had two empty red-zone possessions, three turnovers and a blocked field goal returned for a score against the Cardinals.

WVU was 5-for-16 on third down against Cincinnati, allowed five sacks and had another empty red-zone possession.

Three turnovers followed against Pitt and the Panthers defense managed four more sacks and stopped WVU on 10 of 12 third downs.

South Florida allowed the Mountaineers three field goals on three red-zone possessions and stopped 12 of 14 third downs.

WVU's offense had one touchdown and rallied around an interception and a kickoff return touchdown.

"That's football," quarterback Geno Smith said.

"You can't blow every team out, no matter what. Everyone practices."

Rutgers (No. 12-ranked defense), Louisville (23), Cincinnati (42), Pitt (35) and South Florida (39) had formidable defenses and running back Shawne Alston said many overlook how good they were at keeping WVU from what it prefers to do.

"We couldn't keep drives alive like we needed to," he said. "We had a couple three-and-outs and times we'd have two downs and get to third down where we hadn't even gained a yard."

The Mountaineers were No. 61 nationally in third-down conversions last season (40.56 percent). In the four games late in the schedule, they went 17-for-56 (30.56 percent) and Holgorsen had to change the way he called plays to set up easier third downs.

Take that away and WVU finds itself ranked No. 28 (45.16) and between Baylor and Oregon.

The bowl game arrived and WVU was back to what it once was, converting 10 of 16 third downs while averaging 6.6 yards per play and scoring touchdowns on all seven red-zone possessions.

"We played the game, we scored 70 points, we did a great job, but we didn't look back at the season and say, 'We did this, so let's do this different,'" Smith said. "We didn't change anything about our game. We did the same things."

Despite the points, the offense wasn't especially explosive. The game got away from Clemson with turnovers at the end of the first half that gave the Mountaineers a short field. WVU's offense had one 20-yard run, the longest pass was 37 yards and that short toss to Tavon Austin was the longest scoring play.

Yet the Mountaineers were consistent and effective and the average touchdown drive needed a tidy seven plays and 60 yards.

"That was a perfect example of what to do," Bailey said. "We always want to gain positive yards. As long as we do that instead of worrying about the big plays, everything falls into place and we take it straight down the field."

The obvious concern in the preseason is how WVU reacts because they say they tried too hard to be good last season. They talk now about not being so easily corrupted and believe the Orange Bowl should actually reinforce their modest offensive aim.

"Coach Holgorsen touches on that a lot - keep moving the ball a little at a time and get first downs," Alston said. "You keep pounding it and picking up first downs and eventually the big plays are going to come."

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


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