Chuck McGill: Few believed in WVU, but that might change
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Such a pal, that Dana Holgorsen.
West Virginia University's head football coach, a one-time, one-year understudy of Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy, passed along his apparently contagious feelings of "embarrassment" and "disappointment" Saturday at Mountaineer Field.
It was the Cowboys' longest conference road trip in program history - 1,085 miles - and those country roads out of town surely seemed longer and darker after a 30-21 loss to a nearly three-touchdown underdog.
Holgorsen recapped the week that was after the upset few thought would be.
"There was obviously a lot of talk about people giving up on this team," the third-year Mountaineers head coach said. "That we were going to get blown out ..."
Well, yeah. WVU needed a late push to beat William & Mary, a Championship Subdivision team, in the season opener. The Mountaineers' only other win before Saturday came against the Bowl Subdivision's worst team, Georgia State. In two losses, Holgorsen's offense went from Air Raid to Bare Raid - as in the scoreboard was bare.
The Mountaineers scored one touchdown in a combined eight quarters against Oklahoma and Maryland, the latter of which was a 37-0 shutout loss to a team WVU had beaten seven consecutive times.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said that it is "human nature to get your head down," but that "everybody thought the sky was falling but our players."
Before Saturday's stunner in front of a rambunctious 57,280 fans, WVU was staring down the barrel at three consecutive nationally ranked opponents ... and little respite thereafter. The Mountaineers were to sandwich home games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech - both undefeated and in the top 25 - around a road trip to Baylor, the nation's top offensive team and another unbeaten. Back-to-back road games against defending league champion Kansas State and TCU, a preseason top 25 team, are on the schedule after that three-game stretch.
The loss to Maryland - the worst shutout defeat for the WVU football program in 38 seasons - was going to test the mettle of players and coaches. Their response: a win over the preseason pick to win the Big 12.
The Cowboys, by the way, had an extra week to prepare while the Mountaineers had an extra week to feel worse about their chances.
"To be so mentally tough that you can come back and beat the No. 11 team on your field the very next week," Clint Trickett said after his first start at quarterback for WVU. "It was a rough week. A lot of people talking a lot of things.
"We just ignored it and kept grinding ... and believed in what coach says to us."
That coach, Dana Holgorsen, had steered WVU (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) into the Oklahoma State game as three-touchdown underdog at Mountaineer Field. How rare is that? Well, only the Miami Hurricanes in 1994 and Penn State Nittany Lions in 1986 have been favored by three scores in Morgantown. That '94 Miami team went into bowl season ranked No. 3 with a shot at a national title. The '86 Penn State team did, in fact, win a national championship.
WVU didn't win either of those regular season games.
Holgorsen detractors won't like this, but Saturday's triumph makes him 5-4 against the nationally ranked. For comparison's sake, the late and great Bill Stewart only had four opportunities against ranked teams in three-plus seasons (he went 2-2).
This is the third consecutive season WVU has defeated a top 15 team. Holgorsen is the first coach here to pull off that feat.
Holgorsen is also the only WVU football coach with a winning record against ranked opponents. Through 31 games, he is 20-11 overall. Rich Rodriguez went 3-8 against ranked teams through the 31-game mark at WVU. Don Nehlen was 2-6. Bobby Bowden was 0-3. For the mathematically challenged, Rodriguez, Nehlen and Bowden combined for as many wins over top 25 teams in their first 31 games (a total of 93 games combined) as Holgorsen has on his own.
That's life in the Big 12, where WVU has faced a ranked opponent in six of 11 league games. That number could increase to 8 of 13 after the next two games: at Baylor and home against Texas Tech.
This'll be the first time since 1992 that a WVU team has played three consecutive regular season games against the top 25. This month was the first September since 1983 WVU played a pair of ranked teams.
It does not get any easier. There is a chance WVU will not be favored again until a November home game against Texas, if even then.
Saturday showed that might not matter as much as previously thought.
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.