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Holgorsen set for Year 3 with Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Later this week, Dana Holgorsen will officially begin his third season as West Virginia's football coach. His team reports for fall practice on Wednesday, then begins practice Thursday.

To say that his first two seasons ended, well, differently would be a colossal understatement. His first was a 9-3 regular season capped by one of the most impressive performances in the school's 100-plus years of football, the 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. His second included a five-game losing streak, a 7-5 mark and then a dismal performance in a loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Could the two have been much different?

Well, yes, Holgorsen believes. In fact, the difference between the two he sums up with no apparent difficulty.

"You've got to catch some breaks,'' Holgorsen said.

That's all?

That's all.

OK, so maybe that's oversimplifying things. A lot. But when Holgorsen sets about explaining his theory, well, it does make some sense. It goes back to the same thing that has been harped on for more than a year - the move from the Big East to the Big 12 and the accompanying jump in degree of difficulty - but Holgorsen these days points it out a little more specifically.

"It's pretty interesting in that our level of [competition] last year was obviously a little higher,'' Holgorsen said. "What was the difference between 9-3 and 7-5? Two close games. Those close games in 2011 against South Florida and Pitt were a little easier to win than against TCU and Oklahoma. If we would have won those two games, you're looking at the same season.''

It's hard to argue the point, of course. The reasons? Sure, you can go into that a lot deeper. You can point to the abject failure of a defense that simply wasn't very good no matter the conference (it gave up, after all, 31 points per game to the three FBS non-conference opponents it faced, too) or to miscalculations by a coaching staff that has been completely reworked or any of a number of other factors. And all of those fall at the feet of Holgorsen.

But imagine, for a moment, that exactly the same team had faced those two schedules. Would the results have been different? Perhaps not. After all, both lived on the edge. It's just that one tended to fall off more often than the other.

Remember, the 2011 team struggled mightily, being trounced at Syracuse and losing at home to Louisville within a three-week span. It took a near-miracle to then win at Cincinnati - knocking out quarterback Zack Collaros, recovering a fumble in the end zone and blocking a field goal to end the game - and then the season ended with games against 5-5 Pitt and 5-6 South Florida. It took a rally from down 20-7 to beat Pitt by a point and a wholly unlikely finish - a fumble recovery, a ridiculous Stedman Bailey fourth-down catch and a field goal on the last play - to knock off USF.

And even then West Virginia had to sweat out two other games that had to go its way that weekend in order to get into the Orange Bowl. What happened there, of course, allowed most to develop a bit of amnesia regarding how uneven the season really was.

Then in 2012, well, there was the 5-0 start and then the five-game losing streak. Much as the Orange Bowl has come to define WVU's 2011 season, that awful turnaround will always be the everlasting image of 2012.

But again, consider that WVU won that preposterous 70-63 game against Baylor and beat Texas because the Longhorns couldn't execute a shotgun snap. And West Virginia wins in regulation against TCU if it can play an ounce of defense with the Horned Frogs on their own 6 with 88 seconds to play - the Mountaineers couldn't, giving up a 94-yard TD pass and losing in two overtimes  - and beats Oklahoma if it can hold two leads in the final six minutes.

Convert both of those and West Virginia is 9-3 in its first season in the Big 12, the same as in its final season in the Big East. Does anyone not believe that the conversation is a whole lot different if that happens?

Of course, Holgorsen points that out because, well, he wants you to know how similar the two seasons actually were. He knows he's being criticized because last year was an abject failure as far as most are concerned - particularly given the offensive talent - and this is a way of rationalizing it.

You'd do the same thing.

Is the criticism unfair? Unjust?

"It doesn't matter how I feel about it,'' Holgorsen said. "We let everybody kind of have their opinion on it.''

As if he had a choice.

In pointing out, though, how similar the two seasons are, Holgorsen also refreshes the fact that while both seasons could easily have turned out the same, they both could have turned out much, much worse. If getting a few breaks is the difference, what happens if there are one or two fewer breaks instead off one or two good ones? Then does the Cincinnati game in 2011 turn into a loss and a demoralized team doesn't win another game (after a 5-1 start and only a loss to LSU)? No Orange Bowl, perhaps no bowl at all.

And what of one or two more bad breaks in 2012, say against Baylor and Texas or even Iowa State? Instead of 7-5 is it 4-8? Then again, maybe that's a good thing because then the Mountaineers don't even make it into the Pinstripe Bowl.

The point, though, is that yes, this is often a game of breaks. Alabama doesn't win three national championships in a row without breaks because twice it needed teams to lose in order to get into the title game. Notre Dame goes unbeaten a year ago because Pitt steadfastly refuses to beat the Irish despite being given every opportunity. Everyone needs breaks.

Fortunately, Holgorsen is banking on more than just breaks.

"After this last year it was a good opportunity to kind of re-evaluate everything with the program,'' Holgorsen said. "It was impossible to do it the first year because of how things transpired and it was pretty tough to do it the second year with all the returning guys, with the bowl game win. And so when last year ended with a disappointing loss in the bowl game, in my opinion was the correct time to re-evaluate everything.''

What he found, among other things, was that those first two seasons weren't all that different. If nothing else, it's a positive with which to march forward. And after last year, the program can use all the positives it can manufacture.

"I think the state of the program is healthy. I think we have the parts to be a good football team,'' Holgorsen said. "It's how we develop and catching some breaks at some key times.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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