West Virginia Reaches New Low with Loss at Kansas; Who's to Blame?

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2013

LAWRENCE, KS - NOVEMBER 16:  Running back James Sims #29 of the Kansas Jayhawks carries the ball into the end zone on a breakaway during the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Memorial Stadium on November 16, 2013 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Kansas beat an FBS football team on Saturday, which is newsworthy unto itself.

The Jayhawks scored their first conference win since 2010, beating West Virginia 31-19. It was the first time Kansas has beaten a current Big 12 member since 2009, when Todd Reesing led it to a win over Iowa State. That feels like an eternity ago.

According to Geoff Coyle of WV Illustrated, even West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen recognized the historic low his program reached:

I don't want to diminish what Kansas did on that football field, because from start to finish, it actually played a pretty good game. Credit where credit is due. But the Jayhawks are not the story after Saturday's game.

West Virginia is the story.

Holgerson's team reached a new low with Saturday's loss, officially becoming bowl ineligible with its seventh defeat of the season. After encouraging signs in each of the past two weeks—both of which included overtime—the team regressed far below the mean and played its worst game of the season by a long shot.

For that, someone has to take the blame. But who? Holgerson is the easy answer, but is he the right one? Is it fair to simply blame the coach?

I'm inclined to say no, even though Saturday's performance is damning evidence to the contrary. Bad as the Mountaineers looked, it was still just a one game sample.

As B/R's Ben Kercheval points out, the same critics that are panning Holgerson right now were not quite as vocal during WVU's near-upset of Texas last week:

It doesn't get the same media coverage as a team like Florida—because West Virginia isn't Florida—but the Mountaineers are among the most injured teams in college football right now. Paul Millard was forced into duty at quarterback, a job he was clearly not capable of handling, and the defense was beat up on every level.

There are no excuses in football, and Holgerson should have done a better job coaching up his backups and preparing them to play. For that, he deserves to be criticized. The team that took the field in Lawrence did not look like a BCS-conference program, and for that Holgerson should take some blame.

But because of the injury situation, I don't think Holgerson is to blame for this season gone awry. He is a good, capable coach who was thrust into unfortunate circumstances. Could he have done better? Sure. But he's not necessarily doing bad.

Which is not to say that this should be acceptable. If the losing sustains itself for more than a season—if getting beat by teams like Kansas becomes a trend, not a fluke—Holgerson would bear full blame and rightfully be shown the door.

Now just isn't the right time, especially because of the financial situation. According to Allan Kenney of Crystal Ball Run, West Virginia would owe Holgerson around $11 million if it fired him:

That doesn't vindicate Holgerson, but it's still important. The school would be unwise to fire him after this season, so what's the point of throwing stones? Casting blame on Holgerson can only lead to dark places. Supporting him can only help.

It's a cop-out, but the biggest reason West Virginia has stunk this year is bad luck. The injuries have taken a massive toll on the defense; a unit that held Oklahoma to 16 points just let Kansas rush for 315 yards in one game.

That's not bad coaching, it's attrition.

It's hard to lose three iconic, All-American-caliber players like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey; it's even harder when the rest of your residual players can't stay on the field. It's hard to win when Millard is your starting quarterback.

Holgerson needs to do a better job of preparing his team to deal with injuries. Players getting hurt is part of the game, but a highly functioning program should be able to beat Kansas in spite of that. The coaching staff at WVU needs to do a better job.

But playing the blame game won't get West Virginia anywhere right now. Holgerson has proven his ability to win in the past, and if given the chance, he should be able to prove it again in the future.

The Mountaineers still beat Oklahoma State this season, which no other team in America has been able to do. When the team was healthy, Holgerson had it playing decent, scrappy football.

He should have had his team in better shape to play on Saturday, but he is not entirely to blame for this ugly nadir. When it's not your year, it's simply not your year.

And 2013 has not been West Virginia's year.