No more room for error
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - After nearly a month of trying to avoid it, Dana Holgorsen is finally to the point where he can't.
Every game West Virginia plays from here out is a must-win.
That wasn't always the case. It certainly wasn't the case when the Mountaineers got their third win of the season to go 3-2. And, no, it wasn't even the case after three straight losses dropped them to 3-5. There was always room for error.
That's no longer the case at 4-6 and with just two games to play. West Virginia needs wins over both Kansas and Iowa State in order to get to .500 and preserve a streak of 11 straight bowl invitations. The first of those must-win games is Saturday when the Mountaineers face Kansas (2-7, 0-6 Big 12) in Lawrence, Kan.
That's the bad news, of course. The good news? Even after everything that has gone wrong this season, the Mountaineers still have a chance.
"We need to understand that we're still playing for something,'' Holgorsen said. "It is at the point where I'm talking about bowl games. We've got to win the next two to go to a bowl game and that's something that for our 12 seniors, they deserve that.''
Holgorsen avoided using bowl eligibility as a motivational factor until now for what seems a pretty good reason, truth be told. In previous games a bowl wasn't actually on the line. In fact, given the separation between the top teams in the league and those nearer the bottom - including WVU - even a bowl destination wasn't really at issue.
The reality is that if WVU does qualify for a bowl it is likely to be a return trip to New York for the Pinstripe. It probably would have been the same even had the Mountaineers won another game and finished 7-5.
After last year's cold, snowy and ultimately humbling trip for a game at Yankee Stadium and a 38-14 loss to Syracuse, bowl eligibility doesn't actually seem that enticing. The truth is, though, that any bowl invitation is a good one on a variety of levels.
For starters, it means an extra few weeks of practice to get a head start on next season. Both Holgorsen and West Virginia have come to almost take that for granted. The Mountaineers have done it every year for the last 11 and Holgorsen for the last 13 at his various stops.
"That's definitely what the expectation is,'' Holgorsen said. "It's certainly the expectation here, and it should be.''
More than that, however, a bowl game serves as a send-off for a team's seniors. There aren't that many - just 13 are listed on the current roster - but it's usually a welcomed extension for a football career that for most will end with their final college game.
"It's a reward for the seniors. That's the number-one thing,'' Holgorsen said. "You can say it's for development. You can say it's for recruiting, to go win one and get a trophy in the case. That's all good and it's a good experience for everyone. But a reward for the seniors is the most important.''
Save for a handful of transfers, for most of the seniors on this year's team their college careers have been, well, eventful. Some were recruited as high school juniors by Rich Rodriguez's staff. The fifth-year seniors were signed by Bill Stewart to play in the Big East. They've played three years now for Holgorsen, the last two in the Big 12. And they've reached the highs of an Orange Bowl wipeout of Clemson and lofty national rankings after a 5-0 start last season, and the lows of going 6-12 in their last 18 games.
"You're talking about guys who have been through a lot of transition from coaching staff and conferences,'' Holgorsen said. "Guys like Will [Clarke], Pat [Eger], Darwin [Cook] and Curtis Feigt. Charles [Sims] has been phenomenal in his one year. Nick Kindler is playing well. Ivan McCartney has been through a lot.
"You have guys who want to keep playing. Being able to get them to a bowl game is big.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.