Mountaineers finish up far from the spotlight
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Before Saturday's Big 12 football matchup between Iowa State and West Virginia, televisions glowed in the press box.
Michigan's narrow loss to No. 3 Ohio State was wrapping up. (Good for you, Brady Hoke, for trying the 2-point conversion.) There was No. 9 Baylor at TCU. The Alabama-Auburn showdown was beginning. No. 2 Florida State was on its way to a wipeout of Florida.
And then there was the game in front of us.
It was so far off college football's national radar that flares could have been sent up. The only question heading into the game centered on if 40,000 would show. The last time that didn't happen for WVU was the 2003 Temple game.
(The answer turned out to be no. Just 33,735 showed, the third lowest figure in Milan Puskar Stadium history. Not since Nov. 21, 1992, when the Mountaineers took on Louisiana Tech, has a crowd been lower, 27,751.)
Whatever the case, though, WVU seemed in cruise control. The Mountaineers were up 31-7 to a Cyclone team that kept tripping over itself.
Then Iowa State began to come back. And continued to come back. And continued to come back.
Soon, the hearty souls that turned out to back WVU were sitting in the stands with jaws dropped. Tie game, 38-38.
The Mountaineers had a chance to leave at least a partially decent last impression. And, when a fourth down triple overtime pass was broken up, Dana Holgorsen's team failed even at that.
For WVU, it was more than embarrassing. First, there was a low in a loss to Big 12 door mat Kansas. Then, to cap off the season, the team allowed that 31-7 lead go down a sinkhole to the next-to-last door mat.
It was stunning.
And during the game, while the game officials pondered their decisions and explained those decisions (and had them reviewed and reviewed), one couldn't help but consider WVU's situation.
After having talent like Tavon Austin and Geno Smith go high in the most recent NFL draft, there was but one scout - Green Bay's Alonzo Highsmith - in the press box on Saturday.
Surely, the seniors leaving the team wanted to go out on a strong note. Guys like Shaq Rowell. In two plays close to each other, Will Clarke had his sixth sack of the season and No. 9.5 in his career. Then Charles Sims, who might be the best available senior runner, burst loose for a 76-yard touchdown run.
The game was set up for Sims. It was set up for WVU to at least finish on a semi-positive note.
Then Holgorsen and company found a way to blow it.
"Obviously a disappointing way to end the game," he said. "A disappointing way to end a disappointing season."
To say the least.
It leaves one wondering. How does WVU sell this program now, at least in the short term.
How does Holgorsen sell it to recruits, except to promise early playing time? That only goes so far. The best want to play with the best.
How does WVU sell this to the Mountaineer fanbase?
The only possibility from this vantage point at this time is to name recruit William Crest next season's starter - if he's able to get to Morgantown early. (He's trying.)
That probably won't happen though. Which leaves WVU and athletic director Oliver Luck with a more-than-tough sell. There are no viable stars on which to build a rallying campaign, unless the school touts Rushel Shell, a transfer from Pitt who has yet to take a handoff in Morgantown. Sims, a terrific talent, is gone. Shelton Gibson, who was redshirted, might be a find.
But West Virginia's program is in a shambles. It was in shambles all season. It ended in shambles to the tune of 52-44 at home against Iowa State.
Now, Holgorsen needs to recruit some five-star players.
As well as his school's own fanbase again.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.