Chuck McGill: Figuring out WVU an exercise in futility
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- If you're looking for consistency, the recognizable Flying WV logo isn't a bad example. The West Virginia University athletics logo appeared on the side of the school's football helmets the last 34 years and 408 consecutive gridiron games.
That run ended Saturday at Mountaineer Field when the team hustled out of the Puskar Center wearing shiny white lids with the old-school 1979 logo on each side. The new hats didn't help.
WVU lost to the now-No. 23 Texas Longhorns, 47-40, in overtime in front of 58,570 fans and a national television audience. It is the third time in the Mountaineers' last 14 games they've lost when scoring 40 or more points.
Puzzling, right? This team, down its top two quarterbacks, can get sacked six times, fumble six times, throw an interception, fire 18 incomplete passes, have five running plays of zero yards and total 13 negative-yardage plays from scrimmage and still score 40 points against a defense loaded with blue-chip athletes.
Baffling, right? This group can vanish for giant chunks of the game - WVU's offense managed minus-20 yards on the final 10 plays of the first quarter and minus-26 yards in a 16-play span that covered the transition from starting quarterback Clint Trickett, who was knocked out of the game, to backup Paul Millard - and have a shot to win again as an underdog.
Perplexing, right? And it took four lead changes and overtime for Texas, which is still hanging with No. 4 Baylor at 6-0 in the Big 12, to escape with the 243rd win of Coach Mack Brown's career.
Brown called it "one of the best football games" he's ever been involved with. Well, it was 62-year-old's first overtime game and he came out the victor, so he'll likely remember it fondly.
For WVU, however, it was another jarring reminder of what the program has lacked this season: consistency.
There are flashes of brilliance, but the offense and defense seldom flash them in concert.
The result is a maddening display of uneven performances that has led to a curious combination of the following: narrow win over a Football Championship Subdivision team; blowout loss to a middling Atlantic Coast Conference team; win over a nationally ranked team; overtime loss to the Big 12's co-leader.
Shoot, before Saturday's home heartbreaker, WVU spent consecutive weekends on the road as double-digit underdogs. In the first game, the Mountaineers lost by 23 points to Kansas State. The next week, they beat TCU in overtime.
Befuddling, right? There was more Jekyll and Hyde against Texas.
"Offensively we put our defense in really bad situations in the first half and the opening half of the second half," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "With that said, we did a good job of holding them to about 16 points and then offensively we did a better job of executing, we punted, we didn't turn the ball over and that's when we started playing awful defense.
"I don't know - you guys figure that one out. I guess we got to put our defense in horrible situations for them to keep them out of the end zone."
WVU's defensive struggles were highlighted on third down. Texas converted just one of its first 11 third-down attempts, but was successful on nine of its final 12 third downs.
The Longhorns' strategy wasn't a mystery, either. Receiver Jaxon Shipley finished with seven catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Four of his final five receptions came on third down - including the score - and the other was a fourth-and-7 conversion that kept Texas' game-tying drive alive in the twilight of the fourth quarter.
Shipley's fourth-down grab came with 59 seconds left.
"I think you know who the ball is going to in that situation," Texas quarterback Case McCoy said.
It didn't matter.
Here is a different kind of throwback: Holgorsen is guaranteed back-to-back six-loss seasons, which hasn't happened since 1994-95. The last coach to string three of those seasons in a row was Frank Cignetti, who was the last to coach a WVU football team without a Flying WV on the side of the helmet. Cignetti lost at least six games in four consecutive seasons before Don Nehlen took over the program in 1980 and kicked the white helmets to the curb.
The Mountaineers are 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the Big 12. They'll end their seven-game streak of being an underdog with this Saturday's game at Kansas, which has the longest conference losing skid in the nation at 26 games. Then, West Virginia gets Iowa State (1-8 overall, 0-6 Big 12) to close the regular season at home. Bowl eligibility seems like a certainty, but WVU is down to one healthy QB and the possibility of a Maryland-type clunker could snuff out the program's bid for a 12th consecutive bowl season.
Consistency is the key, it's just not a given.
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.