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Mike Casazza: Intro to Big 12 wasn't supposed to be easy

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - By now it seems that the biggest problem West Virginia fans have with West Virginia's coach is the language Dana Holgorsen uses.

Not the sometimes blue words used by the man who dresses in black. Not the phrases the nosey television cameras catch when he's simply doing his job. It's the things Holgorsen has said to explain this season that sunk till it stunk after last week's loss to Oklahoma.

More specifically, it's actually the things he hasn't said and the things that people didn't want to hear. It would have done him no good to point out the circumstances and the shortcomings and then point at them repeatedly as his Mountaineers dropped five consecutive games.

That's changing, though, and whether he can no longer keep it inside or no longer hide what is rather obvious, those truths are starting to slip through those zipped lips.

Never was this supposed to be easy for the Mountaineers.

No one was going to admit that when the team was 5-0 and in the top five of both polls for the first time in five seasons. No one would have believed it, anyhow.

Yet look back and remember WVU needed 10 touchdowns and a one-handed reception on a late third down to beat Baylor. Recall how a bad snap from center on a third-and-goal set in motion the defining sequence of the win against Texas.

Even then, the Mountaineers were always close to this reality they're now living, yet only now does it seem clear that the Big 12 Conference was a bit more than a lot of people expected.

"I'd say that's an understatement," said Holgorsen, now in his 10th season as a Big 12 coach.

He knew it could be hard and he said as much, though in hushed tones that wouldn't dampen season ticket or merchandise sales, wouldn't affect morale in the locker room or on the recruiting trail, wouldn't diminish the audience for his television and radio shows.

Yet just like defenses caught up to his offense this season, observers caught on to the reality. Holgorsen's opinion never changed and privately he maintained his team needed this year, probably another and perhaps even a third to get acclimated. No one wanted to hear that, even as they were saying it, and Holgorsen choked it off.

No more, though.

"West Virginia had so much success and just won a lot over the last couple of decades that they're kind of used to that," he said this week. "Winning is contagious and it's always quite a bit of fun, but when you're used to it and it doesn't happen, people get fairly bitter. It's been an eye-opener to a lot of people."

Whether it was the unexpected struggle on offense, the inexcusable failure of the defense or the many embarrassing moments on special teams, when the observers leaned forward and had their eyes opened, they saw the truth.

This is not a very deep or remarkably talented team. The Mountaineers have no reason to be ashamed of the high-end talent on offense. The quality rivals anyone's in the Big 12. The quantity does not. This conference praises quality. It rewards quantity.

Holgorsen and the team's two defensive coordinators, Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson, both forewarned followers it would be hard, though that shouldn't excuse anything that has and has not happened.

Still, WVU has trouble with quality and quantity on defense. The shortage of players is complicated by a shortage of versatility. The Mountaineers have run stoppers who are not pass rushers and vice versa. They have cornerbacks who better safeties and vice versa.

It's probably fair to remember these are players recruited to play a 3-3-5 and to play defense against Rutgers and Pitt and Connecticut in November and December in the Northeast. The collective talent on offense in the Big 12 is superior beyond explanation.

Yet whether or not your eyes have been opened, you understand WVU is at its weakest on defense at cornerback. And the Mountaineers have started six different cornerbacks. Six! They only have eight on scholarship and two are redshirting. Basically, if you're a cornerback at WVU, you've played this season, even if you weren't ready.

At long last, and as an illustration of the overall challenge of this transition, Holgorsen admits he has kids who have "no business playing at this point in his career." They're playing and starting and really only because the coaches are spitballing now.

"Two have not stepped up and taken control of the position," he said. "This is a tough league to play corner in. You've got some pretty good receivers. None of our guys have stepped up and said, 'This is my position. I'm going to make enough plays to where I'm not going to get taken out.'"

You can excuse Holgorsen for not saying that a month ago because you can imagine the reaction it would have generated. Yet you can expect he's known all along. Stated in the present, it's merely a statement people can accept and understand. They saw it. Now their coach has addressed it. Together they can move onward.

But to what?  WVU has its eight scholarship corners and only Pat Miller is a senior. If the others return and they're all healthy and ready to play, the Mountaineers are still close to the maximum number of cornerbacks they can afford to keep on scholarship.

People say it can and it must be fixed by recruiting. They might not want to hear Holgorsen's reply, but they should probably listen this time.

"You have six guys that are young and those freshmen need years to develop before they will be adequate in covering some of these Big 12 receivers," he said. "We are not in that situation as a program right now. It is going to take some time."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at



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