As losses continue to mount, so does frustration for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN - The frustrations born of a four-game losing streak are beginning to take their toll on West Virginia's football team.
Perhaps it's not as great a toll as the on-field failures - the simple dropped passes, missed blocks or tackles, mental mistakes - but it's a toll nonetheless.
Players are frustrated and coaches seem to have few answers. At least they provided few other than repeating the mantra to go back and work harder following Saturday's 55-34 loss at Oklahoma State.
It has come to the point where the prevailing emotion is simply anger. And if it's not anger, well, perhaps something is wrong said quarterback Geno Smith.
"If they're not angry they should be,'' Smith said after Saturday's loss in Stillwater. "I've been angry every day. I'm angry in practice and I'm angry every time I think about it.''
Smith is apparently so angry that he's even lost track of how long this has been going on. Several times Saturday he mentioned how the Mountaineers' losing streak had reached a number he'd never experienced in his football life - three. But that was a week ago.
For the record, losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and now OSU have dropped the once unbeaten and fifth-ranked team to 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big 12. With a Saturday night home game against Oklahoma on tap, the possibility of suffering a five-game skid for the first time since Don Nehlen's 4-7 team of 1986 lost six in a row is a distinct possibility.
After that comes a trip to Iowa State and a home game with Kansas. The Mountaineers still need to win one of those final three games just to reach bowl eligibility.
"I just want to get in a bowl game,'' said receiver Stedman Bailey, illustrating just how far this team has fallen. "With all the preseason hype I felt very good about this year. These last couple of weeks haven't been fun.''
And again, it is beginning to show in frustration. How deep that goes isn't quite clear, but in the past week the team has lost at least two receivers who either quit or were otherwise not involved on Saturday. Freshman Travares Copeland left the team citing personal issues, junior Ivan McCartney was left at home a week after starting in place of Bailey and redshirt freshman Dante Campbell didn't play after earning a prior start.
Coach Dana Holgorsen wouldn't go into specifics - he sharply responded to a question about McCartney's status by offering one of his own: "Why talk about guys who aren't here?'' - and players were reluctant to do so, too. But Bailey, for one, was willing to talk about attitudes in general.
"It is a distraction. When somebody leaves the team in the middle of the season, that's just not good at all,'' said Bailey. "But we don't need dead weight on the team that's not going to come out and help us try to win or bring that energy to the team. We just have to go forward without those guys. We just have to endure.''
Call it an effort to find energy or merely a necessity to fill positions, but Holgorsen went there on Saturday in the case of his receiving corps. The main players were the same - Bailey, Tavon Austin, J.D. Woods and Jordan Thompson - but walk-ons Connor Arlia and Ryan Nehlen also got extended playing time.
And they were targeted, too. Arlia was Smith's receiver on an incomplete bomb down the middle of the field on the game's third play and later made a rather spectacular sideline catch. Nehlen caught only the second touchdown of his career on a pass from Smith in the third quarter.
Perhaps their participation had something to do with what Bailey referred to several times after the game, namely a desire to play.
"We all play this game and love this game. It has to mean something to you,'' Bailey said. "I don't know if it means more to one guy than another, but sometimes when I'm looking at the game from the sidelines and see everything that's happening, I'm just questioning [some of the players] ... 'Come on, man.' That's what makes me question effort sometimes.''
Perhaps it is too late for some of those players. For others, though, it is never too late to right a ship. And it isn't as if a losing streak alters the world.
"I can't be one of those guys who says this is the end of the world. It's not,'' said Smith. "Football's going to go on at West Virginia, it's going to go on in the Big 12 and I'm going to play a lot more football.
"My goal right now is just to break this film down, figure out what I did wrong and correct those mistakes. Everything else will work itself out.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1