One last bitter pill to swallow
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia was already guaranteed to spend the offseason without a bowl trip or a winning record, and now the last taste in the Mountaineers' mouths from 2013 will be yet another bitter loss.
Of course, given the way the season went, that should come as a surprise to almost no one.
"It was,'' Dana Holgorsen said, "a disappointing end to a disappointing season.''
Pretty much summarizing its season in a nutshell, West Virginia blew a 24-point first half lead and a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes Saturday against equally awful Iowa State. After allowing the Cyclones to tie the game at 38, WVU lost 52-44 in three overtimes.
The loss came in front of a crowd of just 33,735 that included only a few hundred students during Thanksgiving break. It was the third-smallest crowd in the stadium's 34-year history and the smallest since 27,751 showed up for a season finale against Louisiana Tech in 1992.
With the loss, West Virginia finished 4-8 overall and 2-7 in its second season in the Big 12. It is the first time since 2001 (3-8) that WVU has failed to have a winning record and play in a bowl game.
Iowa State finished an even worse season, although on a higher note. The Cyclones (3-9, 2-7) won only against Tulsa and Kansas this season before beating WVU.
Once again, West Virginia's chief issues were turnovers and defensive breakdowns in the second half. For the fifth time in the last six games, the Mountaineers lost a second-half lead and for the fourth time it cost them a win. WVU had second-half leads in games against Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Texas and Iowa State and beat only TCU. Three of those games - TCU and Texas were the others - went into overtime.
In the end, the game came down to simple execution in overtime. After trading field goals in the first two overtimes to make it 44-all, ISU quarterback Grant Rohach hit Justin Coleman for a 25-yard touchdown on the first play of the third overtime and then connected with E.J. Bibbs on the mandatory 2-point conversion to give the Cyclones a 52-44 lead.
West Virginia then got 22 yards on its first play in the third overtime on a pass from Clint Trickett to Charles Sims, but then couldn't score in four plays with first-and-goal from the 3. Trickett's final pass to Daikiel Shorts was nearly intercepted and short of the goal line.
From West Virginia's point of view, though, the game should never have gotten to overtime. Leading 38-21 with 10 minutes to play, the Mountaineers turned the ball over twice in their own end and didn't make a defensive stop. Iowa State scored on a 62-yard pass from Rohach to Quenton Bundrage, then converted a Vernon Davis fumble into a field goal and a Trickett interception into Rohach's 19-yard tying touchdown pass to Coleman with a minute to play.
"We turned it over in the worst possible situation,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said, speaking generally of both the late turnovers but specifically the third-down interception by Jacques Washington with 2:46 to play. "A punt's not a bad play there. If we don't turn the ball over, we win the game.''
Perhaps, but that's not the way this season has gone for West Virginia. And nothing was going to change on this night.
"Everything that could go wrong,'' linebacker Doug Rigg said, "did go wrong.''
For the longest time, though, it seemed just the opposite. West Virginia jumped out to a 31-7 lead in the second quarter by one-upping everything Iowa State did. The Mountaineers turned a Nick Kwiatkowski interception into a touchdown and safety Karl Joseph returned a fumble 38 yards for a score and it was quickly 17-0. Even when ISU countered with a 54-yard Rohach run to make it 17-7, WVU quickly scored on a Trickett pass to Kevin White and a 76-yard Sims run to make it 31-7 with nine minutes still to play in the second quarter.
Even when Iowa State closed to within 31-14 at the half it still seemed WVU was in control and the score remained that way into the fourth quarter. Sims was having a monster day with 149 rushing yards - going over 1,000 for the season - and Mario Alford was on his way to an eight-catch, 215-yard night. West Virginia finished the night with 568 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per play.
"We had almost 600 yards of total offense,'' Holgorsen said. "You guys can keep writing stuff about how bad we are on offense, but we were improving.
"But you can't give up 575 yards and win. You can't turn the ball over offensively and win.''
The Mountaineers did both. It began innocuously enough when ISU punter Kirby Van Der Kamp ran a fake and got a first down with the Cyclones trailing 38-21 in the fourth quarter. Two plays and two penalties later it was third-and-14. But that's when Rohach completed his 62-yard TD pass to Bundrage and the momentum swung. Two turnovers later it was a tie game.
West Virginia still had a chance to salvage the game before overtime, reaching midfield with time enough to run one quick play and try a 55-yard field goal on the same end that Josh Lambert had easily made a 50-yarder earlier. But after two Iowa State time outs, West Virginia was penalized 5 yards for delay of game. It meant the ensuing short pass completion only got the field goal to 60 yards, which was too far.
"We were trying to figure out what play to run and no one realized the play clock was at 25 and not 40,'' Trickett said. "That hurt.''
Not nearly as much as giving up that one-play score in the third overtime and then not being able to match it in four tries from the 3. But that pretty much describes West Virginia's season in a nutshell.
"We can't look back because there's nothing we can do about it now,'' said Joseph. "We just have to start working and have a great offseason.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.