Anatomy of a Meltdown: How West Virginia Started 5-0 Last Year and Is 4-8 Since
The last game West Virginia played before joining the Big 12 was an offensive deluge that set the record for most points in a bowl game. It even had its own running joke: West Virginia just scored again.
That 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl two years ago made the Mountaineers look like they were ready for the brighter lights of the Big 12.
As the landscape of conference realignment shifted drastically just months before, WVU was able to find a new home away from the sinking Big East among college athletics' more powerful conferences.
It wasn't a geographical fit nearly as much as it was an identity fit. WVU, with its loyal fan base and solid history, felt more connected to the likes of Kansas State or Texas Tech. It had all the makings of a good acquisition at the time.
West Virginia would officially join the Big 12 later that summer in July, 2012, and the Mountaineers' presence in the conference would be immediately felt. On Sept. 29th of that season, a Milan Puskar Stadium striped in gold and blue would hold witness to one of the most surreal games of the year: a 70-63 win by WVU over Baylor.
Between the atmosphere and the points—a touchdown was scored roughly every three minutes of game time—there was no more appropriate welcome for WVU to its new league.
The following week, West Virginia went on the road and beat Texas in Austin, 48-45. The Longhorns may not have been the conference's best team that year, but it was a monumental moment for WVU to beat the Big 12's titan program, even if in name recognition only, in its first year.
Then, it all fell apart. And now the Orange Bowl feels like it happened a decade ago.
West Virginia lost six of its last eight games that year, four by an average of 30 points. In three of those losses—against Texas Tech, Kansas State and Syracuse—the Mountaineers' offense, which had been averaging 52 points in the first five games of the season, barely mustered a pair of touchdowns.
The defense, hurt by a combination of young players, new coaches and new schemes, was a liability. Literally, it was the worst defense a West Virginia team has fielded in the history of its program.
It was something even head coach Dana Holgorsen, an offensive mastermind, and three future NFL draft picks in quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, could not overcome.
WVU's defense is better this year. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest was reassigned to Special Teams Coordinator and Keith Patterson was promoted to DeForest's old position. Through four games, the Mountaineers rank 33rd in scoring defense and 31st in total defense, per NCAA stats.
But now it's the offense that is giving Holgorsen fits. On Saturday against Oklahoma State, Clint Trickett will be the third different quarterback to start for the 'Eers this season as Ford Childress sits with a torn pectoral muscle.
The issues plaguing the offense are bigger than any quarterback rotation.
The offensive line continues to struggle—an issue for the past few years—and there's no chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers. As a result, few drives have earned points this season.
In the case of WVU's Week 4 game against Maryland, there were no points to be scored at all. It was West Virginia's first shutout loss in 12 years.
It was a terribly appropriate low point for what has been a jaw-dropping skid. Since starting 5-0 in 2012, and 2-0 in conference play, West Virginia has gone 4-8 with no relief in sight.
The question is simple. How did this happen?
The answers are not.
West Virginia managed to beat Baylor last year without defensive help. Then again, the Bears weren't a defensive juggernaut when the two teams took the field last September. Baylor was giving up an average of 33 points a game to FBS opponents at the time and finished the year allowing just over 37 points a game.
But four of West Virginia's five losses in Big 12 play that season came to much better defenses. Kansas State (22.1), TCU (22.6), Oklahoma (25.5) and Oklahoma State (28.2) all gave up less than 30 points a game on average.
With opposing defenses making enough stops, and with WVU unable to stop anyone themselves, the Mountaineers were often forced to play from behind.
That led to a lower third-down completion percentage (34 percent in blowout losses vs. 53 percent in the first five wins) and more turnovers. Save for wide receiver Tavon Austin and his career night against Oklahoma on Nov. 17 in which he rushed for 344 yards, West Virginia rarely had a consistent ground game too.
The narrative that Air Raid offenses automatically neglect the run is false. In 998 offensive plays last season, the Mountaineers ran the ball roughly 46 percent of the time. However, take away Austin's contributions and WVU running backs had 1,456 yards among four running backs.
That's not a terrible number, but it is a bit misleading. Two running backs, Shawne Alston and Dustin Garrison, were slowed with injuries. Meanwhile, WVU's leading rusher, Andrew Buie, collected roughly one-fourth of his 851 yards in one game—the early-October win against Texas. (Buie left the program before the start of the season.)
|During 5-0 start||52 PPG scored||35 PPG allowed||+17 difference|
|Since (4-8)||27 PPG scored||33 PPG allowed||-6 difference|
Still, Holgorsen has shown a willingness to not only keep the run an important part of his game plan, but to improve upon it. Holgorsen hired former Stanford tackles and tight ends coach Ron Crook in the offseason to coach the Mountaineers' O-line following the departure of Bill Bedenbaugh to Oklahoma.
The Cardinal may have had a No. 1 overall draft pick in Andrew Luck from 2009-11, but Stanford was a team built on the run by coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. In 2010 and '11, the Cardinal had a Top-20 running back in Stepfan Taylor.
That's the kind of power run game Holgorsen hoped to have with West Virginia in 2013, especially with the departure of Smith at quarterback. Two running back transfers—Charles Sims from Houston and Dreamius Smith from the JUCO ranks—were brought in to bring more punch in that part of the offense.
While the additions of Sims and Smith are good ones, they highlight another major problem for West Virginia: all the new faces on offense.
Nearly a dozen members of the 2013 Mountaineers' signing transferred in to the program. Coupled with that is inexperience. Austin, Bailey and Smith are the most notable departures, but West Virginia lost 94 percent of its offensive production from last year through the draft, transfers and graduation.
Other than junior quarterback Paul Millard, the offensive leaders so far in 2013 did not play a snap for the Mountaineers in 2012. The only group that remains generally intact is the offensive line—a unit with its own set of problems.
Not surprisingly, chemistry and rhythm with this group has been hard to come by.
Youth and/or inexperience on both sides of the ball have played their roles in WVU's struggles over the past 12 games. But there's another question to ask: how much of the Mountaineers' recent slide is on Holgorsen's shoulders?
It's a classic argument. Is Holgorsen, who has been successful as an offensive coordinator everywhere he's been, tied down with a lack of talent? Or, are players not responding to what Holgorsen is coaching?
After all, it didn't take 5-star talent for Houston to be No. 1 in the country in total offense in 2009 when Holgorsen was the Cougars' offensive coordinator.
Will Dana Holgorsen get WVU back to a winning season?
But being a successful coordinator doesn't necessarily transfer into being a successful head coach. Despite his meteoric rise in the coaching ranks, Holgorsen is still learning on the job. And in two year's time, he's had at least one replacement at all but one assistant coaching spot.
Only offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson remains from Holgorsen's arrival at WVU in 2011. (Dawson started out as a wide receivers coach.)
New coaches, new schemes, new players. That's not exactly a recipe for instant success.
Holgorsen is willing to accept the criticism more than anyone.
"There's plenty of blame to go around," Holgorsen said Monday on the Big 12 coaches teleconference. "I should get more blame than anyone."
2013 was pegged to be a rebuilding year for the Mountaineers with plenty of bumps along the way. Unless West Virginia can shock Oklahoma State this weekend, it would appear that the slide will continue for at least another week.
Looking at WVU's conference schedule, it could be nearly two months before the Mountaineers win another game.
Along the way, we'll find out just how good Holgorsen is as he tries to dig West Virginia out of what has been an epic collapse over the past year.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.
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