Bowl was perfect storm for WVU
MORGANTOWN - Four months and 13 games later, it's probably time to admit the painfully obvious.
The West Virginia football team that just finished an excruciating season by losing six of its final eight games just wasn't very good. In fact, it wasn't much better than average, if that.
About the only thing it was, was hyped. It was hyped - to a degree by locals, but to an even greater degree by the national press - because it had three really good football players. A quarterback and two receivers will draw that kind of attention, especially when they play for a coach considered to be a hot shot, up-and-coming offensive genius.
But as good as Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are - all three figure to go in the first two or three rounds of April's NFL draft - and as successful as Dana Holgorsen has been in quickly getting his offense up and running at his various stops, that doesn't change one very important thing that became more and more obvious as the season wore on.
No one else was nearly as good as those three.
OK, maybe that's overstating it. Try this: Far too many of those around Smith, Austin and Bailey were just average players or not even that. And Holgorsen and his hand-picked coaching staff did very little to either elevate their play or cover up their weaknesses.
Thus a 3-0 start cobbled together against the likes of second-tier teams from Conference USA (Marshall) and the ACC (Maryland) and an FCS opponent (James Madison) was fool's gold, which should have been obvious given that of the three, only Marshall did not really put up much of a fight. Then Baylor gained 700 yards and nine touchdowns and lost only because it gave up 807 and 10. A dysfunctional Texas team that would go on to be smashed to bits by Oklahoma shortly thereafter lost to the Mountaineers only because the Longhorns couldn't execute a shotgun center snap.
No, the way West Virginia lost to Texas Tech and Kansas State (a combined 104-28) wasn't truly indicative of this team's abilities, either. Just as the first five games provided false hope of how good the Mountaineers might be, the next two were an anomaly, as well, given the absence of a healthy Bailey in both.
The final five games were just about perfect, though. West Virginia's offense played as well as it could for the most part, but at times showed serious problems with offensive line play, running the football or even throwing it because of those first two issues. The defense was absolutely horrid and never, ever got any better and the kicking game, save for Austin's occasional return, was abysmal.
And then came Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse, when everything finally came together. And no, that's not a good thing. The offense couldn't do anything because Smith couldn't be protected. And when he was, conditions made throwing the football risky. The defense was again horrid, this time completing the puzzle by failing to stop the run, the one thing most teams hadn't been able to do against the Mountaineers. And the special teams had kicks blocked, others go out of bounds and saw flags while trying to return every other Syracuse kickoff.
And if the resultant 38-14 loss to a team that went 7-5 in the Big East wasn't enough - let's dispense with the notion that WVU's ascension to the Big 12 was the primary reason for a 7-6 record - then perhaps this is the clincher: West Virginia knew what Syracuse was going to do on offense and couldn't stop it.
We're not talking about just theory here, that the Mountaineers knew the Orange would run the football. They knew the plays. They knew before the ball was snapped where it was going. Sometimes they knew who was going to carry it. They knew how it would be blocked.
And they couldn't stop it.
"There is absolutely nothing better than to hear a defense call your play and you still go for seven," said Syracuse center Macky MacPherson. "That's when you know you're kicking their [butts]."
Indeed, West Virginia knew what was coming and it wasn't anything tricky. It was a zone-blocked inside running play that Syracuse used again and again and again. Two Orange running backs, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith, used primarily that play to run the ball a combined 35 times for 365 yards.
Again, how bad does a defense have to be to know what play is coming and not be able to stop it? Ever? No, at least the Orange didn't swarm WVU's defense with passes as everyone else had, but even in lousy conditions Syracuse time and again converted third-and-longs with passes, usually to tight ends, and also managed to draw the normal handful of pass interference calls when WVU defensive backs refused to turn around and look for the ball.
Offensively the attack that Holgorsen takes pride in for being fairly balanced was anything but. When the conditions stymied the pass, the Mountaineers ran the ball for just 88 yards. Austin couldn't cut in the open field, and Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston couldn't run behind a line that didn't open holes. As a result, a Syracuse team that was fifth in total defense in the offensively-challenged Big East managed to hold West Virginia 215 yards below its average.
Oh, and don't even talk about special teams. Has any kicker in the history of college football ever had nine kicks blocked? Tyler Bitancurt did during his career. WVU used three punters and still finished among the worst in the country in net punting. Even with Austin the team was 91st in kickoff returns. And it allowed enough yards to rank 101st in kick return defense, which is even more significant because the Mountaineers kicked off so much.
And if you choose to blame any or all of that on a lack of talent, well, you also have to address a coaching staff that was wholly unable to modify things to make up for those deficiencies. Granted, if you choose to believe that talent was the major issue, then there are only so many smoke-and-mirror tricks one can employ to disguise those deficiencies. But there weren't many changes at all, at least not obvious ones, from the beginning of the season to the end. And whenever asked about changes, Holgorsen was generally snide or sarcastic and simply said that he and his staff hadn't forgotten how to coach.
You can't help but wonder, too, how prepared a team was to play a bowl game without a single live, hard practice in the seven full days prior to the bowl game. The one day the team had a chance, Wednesday in New York, Holgorsen moved it inside because of the threat of bad weather. And then when I asked him later that night if he was concerned about not going live for more than a week, his response was typical.
"Yeah,'' he said. "I guess we should forfeit.''
None of which means West Virginia can't bounce back. It doesn't mean the players are just so bad they can't compete or that the coaches are in over their heads. It just means that this year they didn't do a very good job. Not at all. And truth be told, they were a play or two against Baylor and Texas from being 5-7 and not even in a bowl.
Next year? Well, the common wisdom these days is that the biggest challenge facing this team is replacing Smith, Austin and Bailey. How does a team possibly just keep on going without arguably the three most prolific offensive players in school history?
But that's not the most pressing issue. Not even close. Holgorsen has proved at every stop that he can develop quarterbacks and receivers. He'll do it again. You should really have little or no doubt about that.
Coming up with a reliable 30 or 40 players who don't throw and catch is the trick. He needs blockers and tacklers, kickers and runners. And he needs to put them in systems - particularly defensive systems and special teams systems - that have a chance to work.
That's the challenge, not replacing three NFL skill position players. This team will need a lot more work than on the pass-and-catch game, or it will never improve.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.