Mountaineer Gameday: WVU is still out to prove it belongs in the Big 12
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- If Dana Holgorsen could have his way, the West Virginia coach bookends the program's worst run in 11 years with a win Saturday against Oklahoma that stands tall opposite last month's win at Texas.
"I think we're fine," Holgorsen said. "Not happy, but we're still motivated. The approach last week I thought was good. I thought the effort last week was good. I expect it to be the same this week. It better be."
Indeed, because he and his coaches and players have to end this. That way, the four-game losing streak, longest at the school since 2001, doesn't extend another increasingly depressing and eventful week to become the sourest spell since 1986.
That way, the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) find a way to salvage this season, prove they do belong in the Big 12 Conference and maintain the hope they one day can sit on the league's top shelf with the Sooners and the Longhorns.
That is a goal in the Big 12. It is a place that belongs to the Sooners and the Longhorns, even when it belongs to a team like Kansas State, as appears to be the case this season, or Oklahoma State, as was the case last season.
It is Texas with the exclusive television network. It is Oklahoma with the national titles. It's the Longhorns with the facilities and the highest paid coach in the business. It's the Sooners with the blue chip players stacked up like Pringles and the spell they cast over the southwest, if not the nation.
And, most importantly, it is Texas and Oklahoma that have the blueprint for Holgorsen and the Mountaineers.
Take the opponent Saturday. Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) has lost games to two of the nation's three unbeaten teams this season. It is a very good, very physical and very determined team.
Programs have to contend with the Sooners to contend for the conference title and the Fiesta Bowl and it's been a tough race since Coach Bob Stoops arrived in 1999.
But for a while, Oklahoma was not Oklahoma. In the five seasons before Stoops, the team was 23-33 and never once above .500. There was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable gap since the 1985 national title. There was a need for someone like Stoops to come in and remind everyone the Sooners were and would again.
"This was really a beat-down, downtrodden program, believe it or not, when we got here in '99," Stoops said. "We hadn't had a winning season in five years. We were getting beat up and some of the scores were pretty horrific along the way, losing to Nebraska and Texas A&M sometimes with the scores in the 70s. The kids were beat down."
The Sooners were 7-5 and lost a bowl game in the first season under Stoops, but it was the first bowl in five years. A year later, they were national champions.
"We didn't talk about a three- or four-year plan," Stoops said. "We told our players, our juniors and seniors, we intended to win right away. We put it in front of our players that we were to play a certain way and they embraced us. They related to us and instead of bucking the change, they were excited about it and got things going pretty fast."
Holgorsen's situation isn't the same, but that doesn't mean something good can't come from something bad - and this has been bad. WVU has been to bowl games every year since 2002 and this season is the first time the team has really been in danger of not reaching a bowl since a 1-4 start in 2003. Yet there have been some brutal games and scores and the sort of experiences that can beat down kids.
There was a 49-14 loss at Texas Tech and a 55-14 loss to Kansas State.
WVU ripped defeat from the firm grasp of victory by allowing a game-tying 96-yard touchdown with 88 seconds left against TCU before missing a game-winning field goal in overtime and then losing in the second overtime.
Special teams were a special kind of embarrassing in a 55-34 loss at Oklahoma State.
"Not a lot of fun," said Holgorsen, who's never been a part of a slide like this. "The only way to get out of it is to work hard. That's what the coaching staff is doing. The only way to get out of a losing streak is to understand what the challenges are and to be realistic with them."
Holgorsen had junior and seniors last season and this season.
The Mountaineers struggled at times last year, but rallied late and finished 10-3 with an Orange Bowl win. This season started 5-0 and found the team ranked in the top five of both national polls.
Yet there have been issues on the field and off the field and the idea of bucking the change is at least topical given how two players who had been starters abruptly left the team and the way Holgorsen has talked about finding and featuring players who truly care about the team.
The Mountaineers can still finish with a flourish by winning the final three games, rising to perhaps the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and improbably finding a way to a nine-win season.
That would be quite a turnaround, but not unique.
It was Texas that lost to WVU more than a month ago, which still stands as the team's last win.
The Longhorns had started 4-0, but lost 48-45 to the Mountaineers and then 63-21 to Oklahoma.
They're 8-2 overall and 5-2 in Big 12 play.
"The guys have just understood that we didn't play well at times against West Virginia. We didn't play well at all against Oklahoma," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "I think they just circled the wagons. Young guys are growing up on defense. The offense continues to build and grow."
That sounds a lot like the situation at WVU. The defense is young, but has played better the past two games.
The offense broke down, but played the best it has since the Texas game in last Saturday's loss. There is plenty of negativity surrounding the Mountaineers, much of it deserved and the product of their own doing, but they must let it stay there and not allow it collapse the pocket.
If they let it become a factor, all that's left can be lost. If not, they can be like Texas, which followed a rare home loss and then an embarrassing rivalry loss to escape the scrutiny and again emerge as a Cotton Bowl candidate.
"I think the biggest thing is that they quit listening to any outside sources and went back to work," Brown said. "They understood that the only thing that's important when it comes to football is the product we put on the field. For two weeks, the product wasn't very good and it needed to get better.
"That's what we did. We went back to work, tried to correct the mistakes that were being made, tried to figure out more about who we were on defense, specifically with young linebackers and young safeties, and challenged those guys and they've stepped up. Now we've just got to finish strong."