WVU football: Losing skid changes outlook for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- For all practical purposes, West Virginia's 2012 season began on Jan. 4 in Miami, when the Mountaineers made a mockery of the Orange Bowl and later speed limit signs with a 70-33 victory against Clemson.
It has not yet ended for the Mountaineers, though there are red flags all over the field.
That team generated so much hype and momentum with that Bowl Championship Series win and was picked by the Big 12 Conference coaches to finish in second place in its first season.
The Mountaineers were 5-0 and in the top five of both national polls just 36 days ago and drew conversations about national championship aspirations.
Now, these Mountaineers would merely like a postseason opportunity.
"All we've got to do is win a game for bowl eligibility," said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, not long ago a Heisman Trophy candidate and on the list of possible first-round picks in April's NFL Draft.
A lot has changed for the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12), but one thing remains the same.
They're sending people scurrying for the record books, though it's no longer for record-setting offensive performances, but rather for precedence in futility.
Saturday's 55-34 loss against Oklahoma State before 57,599 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., was the fourth in a row.
That hadn't happened at WVU since 2001, the first of Rich Rodriguez's seven years as the team's head coach. No Mountaineers team had ever lost four straight conference games.
After bottoming out in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State by a combined score of 104-28, WVU found some defense against TCU and then rediscovered the offense against Oklahoma State. The special teams submitted a disastrous performance Saturday with a list of mistakes, chief among them a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown and turnovers on chances to field punts and kickoffs.
Those three mistakes, each at a critical time with WVU down by seven, seven and four points, led to 17 points for the Cowboys.
"You can't make very, very simple mistakes, junior high mistakes, and beat good football teams," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We made way too many basic, fundamental mistakes."
The performance completed the season's stunning transformation from magnificent to magnifican't.
"It's terribly frustrating," senior right guard Jeff Braun said. "I don't want to go out like this, in possibly my final year playing football. To go out like this, especially after we came out on fire like we did winning five straight and now being on the other end losing four straight, is disappointing. Right now, we've got to make sure the program is going the right direction."
Standing in the way in Saturday's 7 p.m. home game is No. 13 Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1).
The loss came in Holgorsen's return to Stillwater, where he spent the 2010 season as the offensive coordinator. The Mountaineers were 10-point underdogs, the first time in 120 games the opponent was favored by double digits.
The Cowboys became the fifth team to score at least 45 points against WVU's defense, which has already set the school record for points allowed in a season.
A week before, WVU lost to TCU, despite leading 31-24 with 2 minutes left. A 94-yard touchdown pass tied that game with 1:28 remaining.
The Mountaineers had unbeaten Kansas State at home one game and two weeks earlier, but were never competitive in a nationally televised showcase. They let the Wildcats get a field goal and then seven touchdowns on their first eight drives of a 55-14 win. That followed the first loss of the season, a 49-14 setback at Texas Tech that was over by the start of the fourth quarter.
An opponent from Texas Tech, Kansas State and TCU were named the Big 12's offensive player of the week after playing WVU. Oklahoma State receiver Josh Stewart could make it four straight when the award is announced today. He caught 13 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns and also scored a 46-yard touchdown on a reverse.
Four of WVU's wins are against 4-6 Marshall, which ranks No. 115 in scoring defense, James Madison of the Football Bowl Subdivision, 4-6 Maryland, which ranks No. 119 in total offense, and 4-5 Baylor, last in total defense and one of three teams below WVU in the 10-team Big 12. The fifth win is against resurgent Texas, but the Mountaineers haven't been the same since.
"We're clearly not getting through to our players that you need to go out there, play at a high level and not make junior high mistakes 100 percent of the time," Holgorsen said.
Holgorsen did Saturday what he did last season and trimmed the travel roster and only used 54 players. Two others have left the team. Freshman Travares Copeland departed in the middle of last week and cited personal reasons. He broke his redshirt against Texas Tech, started against Kansas State, but was a reserve and dropped five passes against TCU.
Junior Ivan McCartney was not with the team Saturday and Holgorsen said McCartney was not injured. He would not elaborate and angrily wondered why anyone was interested in someone who wasn't helping the team, but that overlooked that McCartney started against TCU in place of Stedman Bailey, who Saturday caught 14 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown.
Sources told the Daily Mail McCartney told coaches in August he was thinking about quitting the team and that he was given a weekend to think about his future. He returned to the team and played sparingly. His teammates spoke of him in the past tense after Saturday's loss.
WVU announced Monday McCartney had left the team for personal reasons, merely another development the Mountaineers would rather not deal with as things deteriorate.
"I would say it is a distraction because when somebody leaves the team in the middle of the week, that's not good at all," Bailey said. "But we don't need dead weight on the team that's not wanting to come out to help us and try to win by bringing energy to the team."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-11523. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.