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Mountaineers have to ‘keep playing’

MORGANTOWN - That West Virginia's football team finds itself today squarely behind the eight ball is not unfamiliar territory.

It might be somewhat surprising, but certainly not unfamiliar.

After all, it was after the games of the first weekend of November of 2010 that the Mountaineers found themselves 5-3 overall and just 1-2 in the Big East. They trailed a 3-0 team in the Big East standings, Pitt.

They had fallen out of the national rankings and had little reason for optimism. That WVU would eventually rally and tie for the Big East championship with Connecticut and Pitt was pretty much an anticlimax. UConn still managed to win the league's automatic BCS bowl berth and the Mountaineers were relegated to a Champs Sports Bowl in which they laid a giant egg against North Carolina State.

So, will this year be any different? Can it possibly be?

Well, about the only thing the Mountaineers have left is hope that it can.

"We've got to keep playing,'' said senior defensive end Julian Miller, whose past three seasons have all been pretty much like this one - high expectations followed by disappointment in the end. "We've got three games left and we've been in this situation before. We just have to keep on playing.

"Everybody knows how it goes in the Big East.''

How it goes right now in the league that West Virginia is desperately trying to escape after this year is this: Cincinnati has replaced last year's Pitt at the top of the standings with an unbeaten 3-0 mark. West Virginia, the overwhelming preseason favorite, has now lost two of three to teams that were two-touchdown underdogs - Syracuse and Louisville - and seems no more than an afterthought in the race for the league title.

Just like last year.

After Saturday's stunning 38-35 home loss to Louisville, WVU is 6-3 overall and 2-2 in the league. It has a game Saturday at noon at Cincinnati with a chance to again turn the tide, but that alone won't do it. The Bearcats (7-1, 3-0 after a 26-23 win at Pitt Saturday night) essentially have a two-game lead over everyone else in the conference. They literally have a two-game lead in the loss column over WVU, Pitt, UConn and Rutgers, and they own a one-game lead and the tie-breaker over Louisville, which at 3-1 in the league is the only one-loss team.

Then again, the situation looked just as dire a year ago and WVU nearly pulled it off. In fact, had UConn's Dave Teggart missed a 52-yard field goal on what was nearly the last play of the last game of the season at South Florida, the Mountaineers might have been BCS bound.

"We just have to play these last three games and see what happens,'' Miller said. "There's nothing else we can do.''

Well, actually there is. Shoring up the team's special teams play would be a start. The Mountaineers lost to Louisville Saturday for reasons that included a dropped touchdown pass, two turnovers that created perhaps a 14-point swing, an inability to capitalize on its own gained turnover and a defense that generally played well but couldn't make the one or two stands that absolutely had to be made.

But it was special teams errors that stood out the most. Allowing a blocked field goal to be returned for a touchdown, missing another chip-shot field goal and sending two punts out of bounds after they'd traveled a combined 23 yards were killers.

"The blocked field goal and the touchdown I dropped could have made the difference,'' said receiver Stedman Bailey, who can hardly be blamed after catching eight passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns. "But you can't do anything about it now. You just have to move on.''

The Mountaineers will spend this week talking publicly about how they can't do anything except take it one game at a time and see what happens. A win on Saturday against Cincinnati at the NFL Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium (it was announced Sunday as an ABC game at noon) would be a great start. But it would only be a start and the Mountaineers still would need help just to get into the same position as last year - having a fighting chance going into the last weekend.

First, Cincinnati would need to lose another game. And the Bearcats after this weekend would seem to have the most difficult part of their schedule behind them with WVU, Pitt and Louisville in the rear-view mirror. Coach Butch Jones' team then plays at Rutgers and slumping Syracuse and home against Connecticut.

Second, Louisville would have to lose at least once. The Cardinals, who have won three in a row, host Pitt on Saturday and then finish at UConn and South Florida.

And even if those things happen, the Mountaineers still must win out against Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida and likely would only find themselves tied for first. And the other teams involved in that tie could vary greatly, as would WVU's chances of winning any tie-breakers.

"Last year we tied for the Big East championship at 5-2,'' said linebacker Najee Goode, who was also a true freshman on the 2007 team that tied for the title at 5-2. "All we can do is go out and try to do that again.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.

 


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