MANHATTAN, Kan. — They were a team that wilted during late-game situations all season. Starved for confidence, doused in doubt, plagued by quarterback questions. Even at halftime of a two-point game Saturday, they worried another frail finish might be forthcoming.
We’re referring, of course, to Kansas State.
“It definitely felt like ‘Here we go again,’” said defensive end Ryan Mueller, waxing candidly about the mindset of a Wildcats team that appeared ripe for another loss. “We had been in this situation before, so how did we want to respond? Do we want the same outcome?”
Fortunately for Mueller and the Wildcats, they were opposite a team even more brittle than themselves. Once K-State caught momentum in the second half, West Virginia folded like a tailgate tent, and the resulting 35-12 final score made it hard to recall how competitive this game was entering the final quarter.
“Credit to Kansas State, especially in the second half, for coming out and taking it to us,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. After watching his team surrender the game’s final 28 points—just as it had surrendered the final 21 to Texas Tech the previous week—he accurately assessed that such a repetitive storyline “does not happen to good teams.”
West Virginia had seen its fill of good teams during the first seven games, yet players and coaches emitted an undertone this week that the back end of the schedule—with four of five games against sub-.500 teams—was primed for a strong finish. But finishing isn’t in this team’s skill set. Even when paired against a mirror-image Kansas State squad, WVU’s timidity won out.
The 12 points West Virginia posted were 14 below what K-State had been allowing on average this season and only half of what North Dakota State scored in the same stadium on Aug. 30. WVU converted just 4-of-16 third downs against a defense that ranked next-to-last in the Big 12 in stopping opponents on third down. WVU lost three turnovers to a defense that had created only six all season.
Holgorsen has never fielded an offense so ill-equipped for pivotal moments, so unresponsive to pressure, and that realization is eating at him more and more with each fruitless series. This following an offseason in which the assumption—both on the staff and among outsiders—was that WVU would simply plug in the next 4,000-yard passer for the purpose of manufacturing touchdowns. But for the first time in Holgorsen’s career, offensive history isn’t repeating itself.
“We probably gave ourselves too much credit, thought we could coach them up a little bit better,” he admitted. “We thought our continuity would take care of itself by playing together and practicing.”
Defensively, the Mountaineers are an equally vexing mess. K-State managed seven points on Saturday’s first nine possessions, then scored touchdowns on four straight drives of 78, 78, 54 and 64 yards.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson sounded next-level flummoxed: “I’ve never seen or been around (a situation) where things can be going so good, and then all of a sudden it’s ‘How in the world did that happen?’ We’ve got these (K-State) guys held to seven points for 70 percent of the game and then we’re losing 35-12?”
At least the defensive lapses seemed explainable against Top-25 teams like Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas Tech; but when WVU came unzipped against one of its languishing neighbors in the bottom half of the Big 12, well, that’s flummoxing to us all.
And it suggests that rock bottom may be further down yet.