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Mike Casazza: In a word, 2012 team was weak

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There's a lot about West Virginia's 2012 football season that doesn't make sense.

It had unattainable preseason hype and the inconceivable depths that followed; the undeniable talent on offense and the inexcusable defects on defense; and the 5-0 record and top-five ranking before the 2-6 slide and 24-point bowl loss.

Revisit the box scores, pore over the statistics, identify the trends and sort through the good and bad. One thing just seems to stand out among the numbers and ideas that try to identify one of the most disappointing teams in school history: The Mountaineers fell behind by 10 points or more in five games, each time in the first half, and lost all five.

It's not enough to say WVU wasn't a tough team. WVU was critically weak.

It happened in the meeting rooms, where lessons were taught on film and sometimes ignored, and on the field, where the defense could call out a play the opponent's offense was running and still couldn't stop it.

And what about in the classroom, where the team's starting center, the fifth-year senior with the most starts and maybe the greatest responsibility on offense, couldn't stay eligible and missed another bowl game?

Look at the players who left during the season. Keep track of who doesn't come back next season.

"I can't really explain it," receiver Stedman Bailey said. "I thought we'd do a better job because we've gone through adversity so many times in the past and have been able to respond to adversity and do a good job with it. This year, going to a new conference, I would say we didn't do a good job of adjusting."

The delicate nature of the team may not have been the biggest problem. Certainly the Big 12 Conference competition was a difference and the roster is still not yet in tune with the coaches because the offseason saw an overhaul of the defensive staff. The defense was abysmal, from start to finish, and the special teams were predictably unpredictable.

But that the Mountaineers were so non-menacing was perhaps the biggest surprise. Look at what happened late last season. Wins against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida were meat grinders. Cincinnati's loss ended on a blocked field goal. Pitt was finished by nine sacks in the final 25 plays. USF lost a fumble that set up WVU's game-winning, BCS-clinching field goal.

It was Eain Smith blocking the field goal, Julian Miller sacking Pitt's quarterback four times and Najee Goode causing the USF fumble - three seniors.

"I would say last year I think we had a few more veterans on our team than we did this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball, people like Keith Tandy and Bruce Irvin," Bailey said. "All those guys did a good job keeping the team together and letting the younger guys know we always had a shot if we'd come together and keep fighting. We tried the same thing this season, but we didn't get it done."

Don't forget the Orange Bowl, where the starting running back and a backup inside receiver, who was going to play because of other injuries at the position, were lost to injuries.

Shawne Alston relieved Dustin Garrison in the backfield and Willie Milhouse and Devon Brown had their best games in their final games as inside receivers.

These Mountaineers never replaced Alston when he was hurt, never found a second inside receiver to make life easier on Tavon Austin or a third receiver to complement Bailey and Austin. Three different players started at right tackle.  

"The five games we lost, a lot of the time we didn't step up as a team," Austin said. "You can't have two or three people go out there and do all the work."

The inability to get a yard when you need inches, to star in a backup role, to come back from deficits, to end a losing streak is all the same and it is very clear the Mountaineers need to address it.

It was easy to see WVU wasn't enthused about the Pinstripe Bowl and the cold weather, and that was before the team even made it to New York. No one complained about that practice in the hotel ballroom, either, and they were rattled about the snow before the first snowflake.

This was a team that couldn't make the best of a good situation when it was 5-0 after winning at Texas. How on Earth was it supposed to make the best of a bad situation?

Sure enough, Syracuse was stopped on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, then blitzed Geno Smith and earned a safety. The Mountaineers composed a threat in the third quarter and picked off a pass in Orange territory, but Syracuse blitzed again, sacked Smith again and got the ball back again. The Orange scored on the next play.

That's what WVU missed from the beginning to the end. That can be fixed, though, and it has to happen because it can cement around your feet. It starts at the top, where the guy calls timeouts to argue with officials and sets a curious example.

Coach Dana Holgorsen is looking forward to molding players and building the team to fit the Big 12. He's recruiting junior college players who don't take the comforts of Division I for granted and he'll find ways to coach this edge so his team is hardened when it returns to spring practice. The offense has to find ways to run the ball when it wants and the defense has to attack.

Maybe those Mountaineers practice outside when the weather is bad or in the morning when the players can be tested instead of rested. There are ways and Holgorsen has to find them. His offense takes three days to install. His greatest need takes longer.

"We'll evaluate everything and see where we are at," he said. "We are in a new position. This is new to us. The conference was new to us. We are going to learn a lot more about what happened in the Big 12 this year.

"Moving on from here, it's a little bit more about that than this bowl game playing against Syracuse. We have to re-evaluate a lot of things in our program to see what we have to do to get better to compete in the Big 12."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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