Coal Bowl: Holgorsen confident entering opener after adversity-filled season
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The West Virginia University football team last played a game 34 weeks ago, although they had 14 practices in the spring before a scrimmage ended things.
Preseason practice opened Aug. 2 with 15 days and 18 practices in camp and continued with a handful of workouts last week before the Mountaineers entered their first game week with Tuesday's practice.
Much has happened since the 70-33 Orange Bowl victory against Clemson Jan. 4 - changes to the coaching staffs, graduation and recruiting, players lost to injuries and nearly lost to academics and national rankings and rewards - but no wins or losses.
That will change in Saturday's season-opening home game against Marshall.
The 11th-ranked Mountaineers host the Thundering Herd at noon Saturday in the final game of the seven-year Coal Bowl series. The game is being televised on FX.
"I would have been ready a week ago," Holgorsen said. "We've been focusing on this team - which is our team - for a long time. It's gotten to the point where we know the lineup and what we're going to do that we probably could have done it last week and been just fine.
"I feel good about where we're at as a team and who we've got plugged in and what our schemes are."
Holgorsen, 10-3 in 2011 as the first WVU coach to win 10 games in his initial season, is confident.
He has incentive to feel that way.
After all, everything the Mountaineers did last year came in a season that began with the Marshall game that was delayed three times by weather before it was ended early in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the schedule, WVU had a third Bowl Championship Series trophy in seven years and momentum to roll into the 2012 season.
"Nobody overcame more adversity than we did last year," he said. "There was a whole bunch of stuff in a 12-month period, but I'm proud a lot of guys overcame a lot of that stuff and a lot of the components are still here."
The coaches and players successfully navigated the way Holgorsen was introduced as the coach-in-waiting and then as Bill Stewart's replacement. They had a pair of 26-point losses and a brutal snowstorm at Rutgers. They soldiered through slow starts and sometimes failed to put away opponents.
Running backs Shawne Alston, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, linebacker Doug Rigg and safety Terence Garvin missed games because of injury while an offensive line played on and rotated configurations despite lacking much depth. Old players merged with new coaches to learn the offense while new coaches on offense coexisted with incumbent coaches on defense. Those defensive coaches eventually left for the University of Arizona in the offseason.
Yet WVU never fell apart and grew to feel at home with discomfort. Holgorsen knows the first game will be a test and the first time Holgorsen gets to see a reaction since WVU trailed in the Orange Bowl.
"I want to know which one of the guys is going to stand up and get in front of 22 of his peers and say, 'Enough is enough,' much like Keith Tandy and Najee Goode did last year," Holgorsen said, referring to his two most vocal seniors last season.
"That's probably the biggest think I'm worried about on defense - not having guys who haven't played or guys who haven't made a bunch of plays, but guys who can stand up in the locker room and stand up in front of somebody and say, 'This is not acceptable.'"
The issues could come early and Holgorsen, or any coach preparing for the opener, has plenty to fret. Tackling and special teams are hard to simulate in practices and a lot of teams don't do much of either. The Mountaineers have, though, and feel they're ready.
Freshmen often struggle with the first game and whatever jitters are attached, but Holgorsen couldn't be more content with receiver Jordan Thompson and safety Karl Joseph, starters who enrolled in January.
The biggest change on offense is Quinton Spain replacing Don Barclay at left tackle, but Spain has maintained the starting spot since the spring. The defensive coaches and the scheme are new, but Holgorsen has no reservations about that before the first game because he said Marshall doesn't know what the Mountaineers will do.
"I feel like we're fully prepared," he said. "We've played a lot of football against each other the last four weeks. We've probably played more live situations the last four weeks than I've been a part of before."
Certain in his team's preparations and ability, he's also convinced that the Thundering Herd will be improved. A team that ended the season with a 7-6 record and a bowl win after the nation's 16th-hardest schedule returns eight starters on offense and five on defense.
Holgorsen said those players, as well as numerous backups who are back or now starting, played harder against WVU than they did against any of the other 11 opponents. He said that won't change and his team needs to be ready for that in the first game.
"Regardless of who we play, whether it was Marshall last year or LSU, which was the No. 1 team in the country (a week later), it's always like that," Holgorsen said. "Highly motivated teams are dangerous and we know Marshall is going to be highly motivated.
"One of the things we talk a lot about here is playing hard means giving great effort. A lack of effort is something that will not be tolerated around here."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.