WVU football: Holgorsen looking for answers
MORGANTOWN - There is no chapter in the coaching manual to help Dana Holgorsen through this five-game losing streak he has overseen at West Virginia.
Even if there were one, it might be irrelevant since no Mountaineers team has lost as many in succession in 26 years.
Bo Orlando was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in September. He was a sophomore safety in 1986, the last time the program had a losing streak this long. That was also the last time WVU dropped six straight, which these Mountaineers (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) seek to avoid in Friday's game (3:30 p.m., ABC) at Iowa State (6-5, 3-5).
Holgorsen has signed off on lineup changes before the games and bold decisions within them.
He has increased his involvement with the offense, defense and special teams during practices. He's been hard on his players on some occasions and he's propped them up on others.
He's tried so many things, but won't try everything. Asked at his weekly press conference Monday if he had former players like Bruce Irvin, Chris Neild and Pat White, who were at Saturday's 50-49 loss to Oklahoma, speak to the team last week, Holgorsen pounced.
"If motivational speaking was the way to coach a football team, there'd be a whole bunch of motivational speakers coaching football teams," he said. "Their presence is appreciated, but if you think their words are going to change the outlook of the football team, you're off your rocker."
The words remain Holgorsen's duty and lately they've suggested WVU has been better and maybe even deserved better than this 0-5 run after the 5-0 start. The Mountaineers were crushed in successive weeks on national television against Texas Tech and Kansas State by a combined score of 104-28.
WVU then gave away a seven-point lead by giving up a 96-yard touchdown with 1:28 remaining against TCU and lost on a trick play and then a two-point conversion in overtime. The final score was 39-38.
A week later, the Mountaineers trailed by two touchdowns early at Oklahoma State, but rallied to make it a 38-34 game in the third quarter.
That loss, though, featured a Cowboys kickoff return touchdown when WVU made it 14-7, and then turnovers fielding a kickoff and a punt that gave OSU 10 more points in a 55-34 win.
WVU trailed Oklahoma 31-17 at the half Saturday, but followed Tavon Austin's running and Geno Smith's passes to Stedman Bailey to separate fourth quarter leads. The Sooners won, 50-49, on a fourth-down touchdown pass with 24 seconds to go.
Afterward, Holgorsen's words molded a sad sculpture.
"How many losses like this do we have to go through?" he said.
Holgorsen asked because, really, the Mountaineers are in a different spot if TCU's low pass on the two-point play hits the turf or if cornerback Terrell Chestnut, who hadn't played any defense before Saturday, gets inside on the fourth-down play and bats down the pass that instead won it for the Sooners.
"There's a difference between playing well and losing and just flat-out being embarrassed," Holgorsen said. "We have a lot to worry about right now, but if we weren't playing with effort, if the kids weren't excited to play, I'd be able to sense that and that would be a serious problem."
Holgorsen doesn't sense that. Instead, he's seen WVU's defense make minor, though not thorough improvements while the passing game has returned. Yet the defense continues to rely on players who haven't played very much and everyone conspires to allow big plays. Five consecutive opponents have won Big 12 offensive player of the week after Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones was the choice this week.
The running game struggled to the point Austin was the feature back against the Sooners. The special teams missed an extra point at a bad time and then allowed a 46-yard kickoff return to start Oklahoma's game winning drive.
When things go badly, they can go very badly and players can be expected to overlook some of the encouraging things that happen even as a losing streak extends.
"I don't see that," Holgorsen said. "Yeah, there's a worry to that, but we're still playing for a lot. We've got 22 guys who've got 12 days left in their college career unless we win one or two and extend this to a bowl game. A bowl game is a reward. You get to a level where a bowl game is much more than a reward, but we're not at that stage right now. We're at the stage where we're playing for the betterment of our program."
The next chance comes quickly. With the Friday game, WVU has less time than normal this week and everything is compacted by a day. Holgorsen saw a positive in that, recognizing "our kids sense the fact we had a chance to win and didn't" but that there wasn't as much time as normal to dwell on it.
Sundays at WVU are typically spent reviewing the previous day's game and players usually are off Mondays. The Mountaineers instead spent Sunday quickly recapping the loss before jumping into preparation for Iowa State. They practiced Monday.
"They were forced to get over it and move on," Holgorsen said.
He was even careful to point out the Cyclones don't pose tremendous challenges in preparation. He praised their effort and discipline and compared them to Kansas State, but he also said they use two or three runs and two or three passes and "try not to make any mistakes."
Iowa State started senior Steele Jantz at quarterback, but brought in redshirt freshman Sam Richardson on the third drive. He went 23-for-27 passing for 250 yards and four touchdowns in a 51-23 win against Kansas before giving way to sophomore Jared Barnett in the blowout. Holgorsen downplayed the challenge in preparing for a new quarterback or multiple ones.
"They didn't change," he said. "They're not overly complicated with what they do offensively. They spread you out and run zone (plays). They're going to zone read it, which they did with both of them. Their passing game is one, two, throw or get back to the line of scrimmage. From a schematic standpoint, it's not going to make a difference to us who they play at quarterback."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.