An immediate shot at redemption
MORGANTOWN - Call the past week for West Virginia's football team exactly what it was.
A reality check.
For five weeks, the Mountaineers were among the darlings of college football. A nation was abuzz over an offense that seemed bulletproof. Defensive deficiencies were all but rendered inconsequential because of that. The only compelling question regarding the Heisman Trophy race was what token contenders would be invited to the December ceremony to shake Geno Smith's hand when his name was called.
And then in the space of a few hours in Lubbock, Texas, it vanished. All of it. The offense was pedestrian, Smith mortal and the defense laughable, almost historic in its failures.
"It's embarrassing,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "The guys were embarrassed, they were hurt and disappointed. It's not fun for anybody.''
Here's the thing about the what-have-you-done-lately nature of college football, though: It doesn't take long for a chance at redemption. Perhaps that was the case in the Big East, where opportunities for statement wins were rare, but not in the Big 12, where - mind-blowing statistical alert - nine of the league's 10 teams are or have been ranked this season.
And so here is West Virginia, a week after suffering a crushing, nationally relevant loss in a game televised to the nation, in a position to almost completely make amends by delivering precisely the same. At 7 p.m. today, No. 17 West Virginia (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) hosts No. 4 Kansas State (6-0, 3-0) in a game to be televised nationally by Fox.
It's another of those nighttime games at Mountaineer Field with the potential to be very, very special.
Or, if things haven't changed from a week ago, very disappointing.
And that's been perhaps the main focus this week - changing things, beginning with the team's mindset.
"We need to change the mindset of our football team right now,'' Holgorsen said. "We're a good football team, but we haven't had to deal with [a loss] in a long time. It's been almost a year since we've had to deal with this and we've won a lot of games in the meantime.
"Our job as coaches is to get back to what made us win in all those games. That's working hard, playing with a tremendous amount of effort and being disciplined, being smart, playing hard, playing fast and playing physical. We have our hands full with that this week.''
All of that perhaps hinges on how West Virginia approaches things. There have been plenty of signs, both inside the program and out, that attitude might have been the Mountaineers' biggest failing after all that early success. One Texas Tech player referred to WVU as the cockiest team he'd ever played against. Holgorsen talked about not really taking Texas Tech seriously after emotional games with Baylor and Texas.
"I had a lot of guys that wanted it to be easy because we just went through two hard games against Baylor and Texas,'' Holgorsen said. "We won close games and a couple of shootouts and had a whole bunch of people on that airplane [going to Lubbock] that wanted it to be easy.
"That's not reality in the Big 12. It's not reality in college football.''
Here's the reality as far as today's game is concerned: In Kansas State, West Virginia will face a team that in many ways is its polar opposite. Where WVU's is a flashy, throw-it-around, fast-paced offense, K-State counters with tortoise to the hare. The Wildcats run the ball, chew up the clock and seldom make mistakes of any kind behind quarterback Collin Klein, one of those who closed the Heisman gap with Smith last week.
Defensively, while the Mountaineers give up huge chunks of yardage - they have actually surrendered more 20-yard plays (39) than the team's high-powered offense has recorded (36) - Kansas State is rock solid. The Wildcats rank 19th in the country in scoring defense and 31st in total defense despite playing in the most explosive offensive league in the country.
And perhaps this best sums up the difference between the special teams: Kansas State is second in the country in punt returns and West Virginia is 115th in net punting. That could be a recipe for disaster.
But again, as was the case in the first five games of the season, any and all deficiencies can usually be overcome provided West Virginia's offense is on point. And that, along with any chance the defense and special teams have of improving and holding their own, depends largely on attitude.
It's one every team faces at some point, but for the Mountaineers it was particularly costly because they have little margin for error with such suspect defense and special teams.
"It's a problem, but for every football team that exists out there it happens at some point, and you have to fix it,'' Holgorsen said. "I mean, it could happen in a bowl game. You're talking about 18- to 22-year-old kids here. Who knows what their mindset is?
"But I take full responsibility for it. It's our job as coaches to figure out where we want it to be and change it and fix it.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.