In the area of special teams, there is really but one saving grace - Tavon Austin. He has five special teams touchdowns in his career, including one in each of the last two games. Coach Dana Holgorsen tried to defend his special teams a bit after Saturday's game by saying that the only real issue was the snaps and kicks. But WVU ranks 86th in the nation in punt return defense and 87th in kick return defense.
Oh, and those snaps and kicks were a difference-maker against TCU. Tyler Bitancurt couldn't pick up a low punt snap from John DePalma and TCU scooped up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. WVU's collection of punters and the coverage ranks 110th in the country in net punting. And while Bitancurt shattered his career high with a 52-yard field goal, it was the only one of four tries he made. He missed 50- and 55-yarders and had a 36-yarder blocked that would have won the game in the first overtime.
And finally, the decision-making process on the sideline has to be questioned. At the end of the first half, West Virginia got the ball on its 32-yard line with 3:46 to play, leading 21-14. When two plays lost eight yards, Holgorsen elected to slow the offense and let the clock run all the way down before trying the third-and-12 play. Then Smith completed a 12-yard pass to Austin for a fresh set of downs with 2:28 left.
After that came a rather passive series which resulted in a fourth-and-1 near midfield. Again Holgorsen let the clock run all the way down, and this time called time with 47 seconds. Then he sent the offense back out in a formation which seemed to indicate a quick kick by Smith. But the play blew up and Smith had to scramble, gaining eight yards and a first down. Only then did the offense display any sense of urgency, but four plays didn't go very far and that's when Bitancurt missed his 50-yarder.
What happened to the offense that was aggressive and going for it on fourth down five times against Texas? Granted, the textbook way of handling that possession was to be cautious, but this was more a combination of caution and aggression, neither of which worked.
Then at the end of regulation, two things. On a possession on which one first down would have sealed the game, West Virginia's offense ran a game plan designed to force TCU to use all of its timeouts, not to get a first down. It worked, but TCU got the ball back and scored anyway.
And then after getting the ball back with 88 seconds and a chance to drive for a winning field goal, the offense got to the CU 38 with 41 seconds to play. And with third-and-10 from there and 24 seconds left, that's when the aggression returned, going for it all with a pass into the end zone to J.D. Woods. It didn't work and Bitancurt was left to try a doomed 55-yard field goal into the wind.
And by the way, neither Austin nor Stedman Bailey touched the ball on the last possession. Austin was targeted once. He didn't touch the ball in the first overtime, either, when true freshman Travares Copeland was Smith's primary target in what appeared to be a passive attempt just to maintain field position and kick the winning field goal.
Again, probably a textbook strategy. But how much of Holgorsen and this offense are textbook? That's not the way they played the game when they were winning.
The bottom line is that three losses do not a ruined season make. But three digressive losses are cause for concern. A season that once seemed assured of ending well might now end prematurely. This is a team that isn't even bowl eligible and has games with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma coming up, followed by a trip to Iowa State.
If there's not dramatic improvement, the Dec. 1 home finale with Kansas might be for bowl eligibility. And dramatic improvement is a lot to ask for a team that has shown almost none to date.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.