WVU football: Final loss a microcosm of tough season
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There was something obviously ironic about how the final game of West Virginia's season ended up being the longest one.
The Mountaineers, now literally, could not finish.
They needed three overtimes and 4 hours, 8 minutes to bow out 52-44 to Iowa State, a "disappointing end to a disappointing season," in the words of Coach Dana Holgorsen. His third season in charge ended with a 4-8 record overall, a 2-7 mark in the Big 12 and one more lethal lull that came to define WVU.
"Rough year," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "That game was pretty indicative of the whole year probably."
The loss to Iowa State followed a puzzling pattern in which the Mountaineers would play well, certainly well enough to win, before playing poorly enough in the third and fourth quarters to lose.
They led Texas Tech 26-17 and lost 37-27. They led Kansas Sate 12-7 and lost 35-12. They led TCU 27-17 and needed overtime to win 30-27. They led Texas 26-16 and lost 47-40 in overtime.
What happened against the Cyclones, who finished their season 3-9 with two wins in Big 12 play, was probably the most complete example of the best and the worst the Mountaineers were capable of in their first losing season since 2001
They led 17-0 in the first quarter, 31-7 in the second quarter and 38-21 with 13:42 left in the game. They somehow lost, thus setting the course for an offseason that began Sunday morning and starts with an obvious focus.
"We talked about finishing all year long," Holgorsen said. "Obviously, that's going to be something that's got to be addressed in the offseason when it comes to the issues we had this year. We've had issues closing games this year. Why can't we close games? It comes down to execution, a burning desire to win, a collection of guys who don't want to let each other down, coaches and players included.
"Obviously, we're not at that point right now."
Holgorsen need not discover why his team couldn't win games. He needs to ask himself how he can keep it from happening again. Does he overhaul strength and conditioning? Does he make more changes to a staff he gave quite the makeover the past two years? Does he bank on maturity and continuity he spoke at length about the final two weeks of this season?
Whatever the direction, the resolution is no less important than identifying a quarterback for the 2014 season that begins in Atlanta against Alabama.
Despite the record, despite becoming the first Big 12 team in six years to lose to Kansas and Iowa State, WVU wasn't as inept as finishing four games below .500 would suggest.
The win against Oklahoma State remains the biggest point spread-based upset in college football this season. Losses to Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas and now Iowa State were, in reality, decided by a few plays and in some instances by one play.
Yet at the end, WVU was no better in those situations than it was almost three months ago in a 16-7 loss to the Sooners, a game doomed buy four turnovers, no better in the third overtime game than it was in the first. The Mountaineers played five overtime periods this season, which are five possessions that start at the 25-yard line. They didn't score a touchdown.
The Mountaineers had four more turnovers against Iowa State. They had at least one turnover every game, multiple turnovers eight times and at least as many as the opponent eight times. WVU was mostly mistake free for the majority of Saturday's loss, but started giving the ball away in the final 18:25.
The Cyclones were down 38-21 before turning three turnovers into 17 points - and they fired their offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and running backs coach Sunday.
The fourth turnover was an interception on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation, but that was nevertheless chaotic for WVU. Despite the turnovers before that, the Mountaineers had a chance to win in regulation and took over at their 22 with 53 seconds left to play.
A false start backed the ball up 5 yards, but WVU converted a third-and-8 and a third-and-14 to get the ball to the 50. WVU spiked the ball and then Iowa State called two timeouts. Then came another penalty on a needless delay of game.
"I can't explain the delay," Holgorsen said. "We got a call in there, but we just didn't snap it quickly enough."
The Mountaineers managed an 11-yard gain doing what they planned to do before the penalty, but they decided against a 61-yard field goal. Holgorsen said WVU would have given kicker Josh Lambert a shot from 56 yards away.
Between the first turnover and that mistake at the end of regulation, the Mountaineers moved away from a running game that was very good in the first three quarters. They had 205 yards rushing after 45 minutes. They walked off the field the final time with 212 yards on the ground.
In its final 28 plays of the game, WVU passed 18 times - two interceptions and a fumble lost by seldom-used receiver Vernon Davis - and ran 10 times and only had the ball for 3:57 of the final 18:25.
"You can sit there and have the mentality about running the ball three times and letting the clock run, but with that mentality, you're going to end up punting," said Holgorsen, who hired Ron Crook from Stanford as his offensive line coach in the offseason because he was tired of not being able to run the ball when it mattered. "You run the ball and get negative-one yards. Run it again and you might get two yards, but you're going to end up punting."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.