BATON ROUGE, La. -- Given the way Saturday's game at LSU began for West Virginia - the Mountaineers fell behind 17-0 and running back Noel Devine was felled by a bruised toe - no one on that sideline could have asked for anything better than what they had near the end of the game.
Yet when the end arrived, and despite three possessions that gave WVU chances to score a touchdown and win the game it would lose 20-14, the offense was as bad as it has been in many, many years.
The Mountaineers, who seemed to have discovered a balance and developed an identity, finished with 177 total yards, the lowest total since 156 in a 34-7 loss at Maryland in 2003.
The 58 yards rushing were the low since totaling 33 in a loss to Virginia Tech in 2001. Only once since then had the Mountaineers failed to reach 100 on the ground.
The loss dropped WVU from the Top 25 on Sunday in the weekly Associated Press media poll and the USA Today coaches' poll.
Part of the problem was, of course, the opponent. The Tigers - who moved up to Nos. 10 (coaches' poll) and 12 (AP) - could match up with WVU across the field to better defend the variety of things the Mountaineers like to do.
"That's a really good football team," said WVU offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, who a week earlier managed 200 yards passing and rushing for the second time in 29 games and his fifth-best yardage total at WVU. "They did a nice job on our guys. We caught some and we weren't able to complete some passes we were able to in the past, and certainly, from a pass-protection standpoint, you've got to give a lot of credit to LSU in those situations."
Another part of the problem was the Mountaineers.
Devine hurt his right foot on WVU's eighth play from scrimmage and needed to come out of the game a few plays later. WVU's concern about depth at tailback became obvious. The Mountaineers were again troubled when trying to figure out how to play without Devine.
After WVU had a field goal attempt blocked, fullback Ryan Clarke played the tailback spot. The Mountaineers threw twice from their own 12-yard line and Clarke lost a fumble on third down that set up an LSU touchdown.
"We had to quickly get a Ryan Clarke thought for what we could do," Mullen said.
"We didn't feel like we could go with the true freshman at that point. Certainly that's not an excuse, but it contributes in some way."
That true freshman would be Trey Johnson, who would be ahead of sophomore Shawne Alston and redshirt freshman Daquan Hargrett.
Devine returned on third down on the next series, but a second-and-1 rush by Clarke went for no gain and quarterback Geno Smith was intercepted on third down. That preceded a field goal and WVU miscues set up 10 points for the Tigers.
Devine was limited throughout the remainder of the game and was spelled on occasion, but never by Tavon Austin or Jock Sanders. Both are starting receivers, but both are receivers the coaching staff has professed confidence in - in case Devine is unable to go.