Mike Casazza: WVU walk-on sets example with effort
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There are many things that bother Dana Holgorsen these days. It's not the items on the list that rankle the West Virginia coach as much as the reality the list has grown during a three-game losing streak.
There is a frustration that hovers above it all. Holgorsen, and all the coaches and many of the players, believe the Mountaineers could cross problems off the list if they realize they're in control of so many of the things that have gone wrong.
The quarterback hasn't been as decisive as Holgorsen would like. Running backs haven't hit holes. Offensive linemen don't finish blocks. Defensive linemen struggle to get off blocks. Linebackers can't tackle consistently. Defensive backs often forget to make a play on the ball in the air.
"You have to be in position and be in the proper mentality to pull the trigger," Holgorsen said.
Now unranked entering Saturday's game (3:30 p.m., ABC) at Oklahoma State (5-3, 3-2 Big 12), the Mountaineers (5-3, 3-2) loaded up during the two weeks between the 55-14 loss to Kansas State and the 39-38 double overtime loss to TCU. The coaches studied players who worked hard and wanted it badly and could be trusted to act when the moment required it.
There were changes in the starting lineup and in reserve on offense and defense and special teams and some of it worked, right to the end, when a new safety and a new cornerback didn't communicate a coverage properly and left a receiver open for a 94-yard touchdown as the Horned Frogs forced overtime.
The story could, and should, have been different and because of a man named Austin.
Not Tavon Austin, whose punt return touchdown put the Mountaineers ahead 31-24 with 3:19 remaining, and who said the Mountaineers were once free of fear, but are now scared to make mistakes.
It was Austin Copeland a walk-on, true freshman linebacker for WVU who in his first college game and at an absolutely critical moment sprinted along the line between a permissible play and a penalty and pulled the trigger.
"It was close," he said. "It was real close."
Austin had never returned a punt for a touchdown in his career and his first two attempts against TCU combined to lose eight yards. When he does field punts, he's prone to zigzags rather than straight lines, even though the straight lines make him a wickedly dangerous kickoff returner.
So TCU punted to Austin between the hashes in the middle of the field. It looked like nothing would come of it. TCU's outside bullets had gotten past the outside WVU defenders and then angled inside to aim at Austin.
Suddenly, Copeland appeared in the middle of the play.
"I was doing as I was told," he said. "I was told to get back and help our gunner. As I was getting there, I noticed their guy was beating my teammate and he was going to get there as the ball was getting there."
Copeland wasn't sure if Austin had called for a fair catch. All he saw was the TCU player timing his approach and lining up Austin, who caught the ball and stepped forward. Copeland arrived and knew Austin's step forward brought him even with the TCU defender, who still might make the play if he wasn't blocked, but who might get blocked in the back if Copeland decided to do it.
That would be a penalty and that was not something WVU's stagnated offense needed. The Mountaineers needed a jolt.
"I got there just in time and I didn't hit him in the back," he said. "I was trying to get my head around him and hit him in from the front with a clean block - I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to get my body in his area so Tavon could do his thing."
It worked perfectly and Austin hit the left sideline and danced in the end zone. Copeland knew right away what he'd done.
"I turned around like, 'Oh, hell yeah,'" he said. "I was running, happy as hell."
The euphoria was brief. Instead of going out after the game to celebrate the play that ended the two-game losing streak, Copeland tossed and turned in his bed and couldn't sleep.
"It was depressing," he said.
A day later, he was inspiring. When the Mountaineers gathered to review the game as a team, Holgorsen stopped on Austin's punt return and highlighted Copeland. Here was a player who was at Hargrave Military Academy last year, who didn't have scholarship offers after high school in Woodbridge, Va., because of his grades, and only arrived at WVU in August.
He starred on scout team and was moved to the main team as a reserve "star" linebacker during the open week after the Kansas State loss. He logged 29 played against TCU on kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage and pulled the trigger to nearly hand the Mountaineers the win.
"Coach Holgorsen pointed out he was a new guy giving full effort and that other guys needed to start giving that effort," linebacker and special teams specialist Shaq Petteway said. "Those are the guys coach likes. Not front-line guys, but guys who you put in and are ready to go. It shows that it can be your turn at any time and you have to be ready to do something with it. If not, someone else can."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.