WVU football: Mountaineers can't afford another slow start
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The worst thing to happen to West Virginia last week was not that the 37-0 loss to Maryland was nationally televised or that it was the first shutout in 12 years and the worst shutout loss in 38 seasons.
What trumped that was the way the Mountaineers were defeated long before the Terrapins took a final knee to put the opponent out if its misery.
"What I saw was when a couple things happened early in the football game, we kind of got wide-eyed and said, 'Oh, crap,'" third-year WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Holgorsen has now lost 11 times in his 30 games as head coach. Seven of those losses have been by at least 21 points. The average halftime deficit in those seven three-touchdown losses was 19 points. Not once in those seven games was the final margin smaller than the halftime margin.
"That can't happen," Holgorsen said. "You can't play like that, and it's 100 percent coaching. I can't allow that to happen. I can't have guys who are scared to make mistakes. That's not existing on defense. Offensively, I think's happening a little bit."
Before WVU can calibrate its passing attack, refine its offensive line and liberate its running backs, Holgorsen had one order in preparation for Saturday's game (noon kickoff, ESPN telecast) against No. 11 Oklahoma State (3-0) at Mountaineer Field.
"You tell them to relax," he said.
Holgorsen vowed to do his part, and that goes beyond dressing himself differently and mixing up the lunch buffet at the start of the week.
"I have to change my mentality if they are going to change their mentality," he said. "I'm going to expect good things to happen. I'm going to be excited about going to practice. I'm going to go out and not be worried about calling the perfect play.
"If you sit there and worry about calling a perfect play, then you're going to call a bad one. That mentality needs to go away. We need to relax, and we need to expect good things to happen, because right now offensively that isn't happening."
The Mountaineers (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) can line up practice periods to work on whatever ails the receivers, the linemen and the quarterback. There are drills that focus on ball security. There isn't a time when five minutes are devoted to a sunny disposition. There isn't a drill that rehearses cheers and fist bumps.
Yet positivity was something WVU spent a lot of time on in practice this week.
"What I told the offensive coaches is that we need to coach assertiveness and a play-the-next-play mentality," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "There are too many times practice gets stopped to correct something - a correction for this or because the scout team didn't get lined up right. Well, why are we filming practice? We're filming practice to review mistakes. We practice to get reps at a fast pace."
The Mountaineers have already started Paul Millard and Ford Childress at quarterback and Clint Trickett will get his first start on Saturday. Tyler Orlosky started the first two games at center, lost his starting spot to Pat Eger for the fourth and started again against Maryland.
WVU's three starting receivers are all different than the ones who started the season. One of the new starters, Kevin White, was benched during the Georgia State game for drops. Running back Dreamius Smith had a 75-yard touchdown against Oklahoma, but struggled with blocking and carried once the rest of the game. The Mountaineers have also used three different punt returners.
Holgorsen said he thought his players were too tight, and Dawson agreed. He wondered not only if that came from practice, but if it was also linked to the offense's inability to play with its desired tempo.
"As coaches, you want to strive for perfection, but there's a fine line between striving for perfection by correcting mistakes and just being unrealistic," he said. "It's a fine line. You want perfection, but you don't want to reach a point where every time a kid messes up it's, 'Oh, doggone,' because now they're playing timid and they're scared to make mistakes.
"It's a fine line and I don't know if we're crossing it or not. I'm just saying there's a reason we're not playing fast enough and it's probably our fault more than theirs, so let's fix some of the things we're doing."
The Mountaineers script their practices, so they don't lose reps when they stop to fix something and they don't earn extra reps if they have fewer pauses. If practice isn't stopped as frequently, then the players get in a habit of moving quickly from one play to the next and that's behavior coaches want to develop.
Whether because of an inexperienced quarterback, communication concerns against Oklahoma or three-and-outs against Maryland, WVU hasn't played fast often this season.
"Practice shouldn't be different than the game," Dawson said. "It really shouldn't be interrupted. Let them play, let them make mistakes and let them line up again."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.