Mountaineer Gameday: WVU needs fast start in order to regain swagger
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Stop me if you've heard this before. A West Virginia team has a coach who has flashed offensive ingenuity throughout his career and coached in such a way that makes his players play a way like few others do.
It works really well one season with a team that's kind of young and maybe arrives a little earlier than it's supposed to. The next year, the preseason expectations are where they have not been in many years, but the team pushes back and gets off to a fantastic start and reaches a pretty special place in the national rankings.
And then everything goes wrong.
Obviously, I'm alluding to the 2012 WVU football team, but not speaking directly of it. That was the team that hit in a big way in January and won the Orange Bowl and stirred up all sorts of offseason momentum to be picked second in the Big 12 preseason poll and conjure up conversations about conference and even national championship possibilities.
And that's the team that started 5-0 and was in the top five for the first time in five years before losing three straight games and plummeting from the rankings for the first time in a year. The Mountaineers have been defeated and deflated and they say they've lost whatever it is that made them believe they were special once before.
"We've got to get our confidence back," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "We've lost our swagger. The best way to get it back is winning."
There is precedent and not in football. Back in 2004, John Beilein thought he'd have a pretty good team and the addition of Mike Gansey to the crew that won two games in the NIT a season before might make for something special. Sure enough, WVU started 10-0 with wins at LSU, where no one ever won in non-conference play, at home against ranked George Washington and on the road against a ranked and talented N.C. State team.
Those Mountaineers barreled into the polls at No. 21 after going unranked since March 1998. Then everything fell apart. WVU would later lose five in a row and seven of nine and lost the trust and faith in what once empowered them.
Beilein offered an explanation that transcends time and sports. "We're bothered that we're bothered," he said.
In so many ways, that's what's happening to WVU's football team, which has slipped to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big 12 entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Oklahoma State (5-3, 3-2). Beilein's Mountaineers used spacing and precision and staggering confidence to bounce backdoor passes and hoist deep 3-pointers. They trusted that the offense would be good enough to overcome a zone defense patrolled by undersized layers that led to rebounding deficiencies.
When the buoyant self-belief sunk, so did performances.
These football Mountaineers space the field and use the vertical pass and the horizontal pass and the hot potato pass. They trust Holgorsen's schemes can overcome a defense that has plenty of deficiencies.
When the swagger, as they call it, disappeared, so did all the fun.
"The beginning of the year, we were flying through a lot of teams and our offense was clicking and the defense had good spurts and we were winning games," said receiver Tavon Austin.
"Now it feels like nothing is clicking and we're not having near the same results we had before."
Beilein's team never wavered and turned a corner when Kevin Pittsnogle filled in for a sick D'Or Fischer and made a bunch of 3-pointers in a home upset against Pitt. Holgorsen has been consistent and emphatic that he won't waver and that the schemes are not the source of WVU's trouble - which is probably accurate when a team can't run or run block, but also can't pass protect or beat man coverage or hold onto passes.
"We're going to be fine," Dawson said. "We've just got to stay the course. It is what it is. In my opinion, we've played pretty good defenses and we didn't play well enough offensively to play well against those teams. We've got to go out and execute the same things that worked before."
When Pittsnogle started hitting 3s, the basket seemed to get bigger for everyone else and the Mountaineers started to hit again, too. That team ended up one play short of the 2005 Final Four. If Geno Smith gets on a roll and Stedman Bailey rediscovers the form that made him the country's best receiver four weeks ago and the running game creates and exploits holes and the defense gets just a little better, things can change just as quickly.
It's really not more than a matter of rebuilding confidence, which mean putting pieces in place and then stacking them up to recreate the attitude that once stood tall and towered over Texas. The Mountaineers happen to believe they're not very far from that place. The trouble, though, is that these teams that are beating them are introducing doubt when the Mountaineers don't need any more than what they already have. They get bothered when they realize they're bothered.
They never led against Texas Tech and Kansas State and were outscored 104-28. They trailed against TCU. WVU has had to play from behind the past three straight games and every slow start has made them look a little more uncertain than they did during the one before it. In truth, WVU needed a 50-50 ball in the end zone to tie TCU 7-7 and then a crazy and maybe even ill-advised dash by Austin to tie the score 14-14. The first lead in 145 game minutes and 28 calendar days came after TCU muffed a punt and turned the ball over near its own end zone.
What the Mountaineers need dearly is a fast start so confidence is there at the beginning and can swell to the finish. It's something they seek to manufacture within the framework of their offense.
"We have about five or 10 plays that we feel like are ones we're going to start the game with and if the (opposing) defense comes out playing the way we think they're going to play, we stuck with them," Dawson said.
"There is some variation once we get going and sometimes we have other stuff we want to attack, but really and truly, it's about putting the ball in play from the start and letting people make plays to get us going. We don't want to get overly scientific with it. We just want to do the stuff that Geno feels most comfortable with."