MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — By achieving bowl-eligibility, Dana Holgorsen has mitigated the hot-seat speculation that followed last season’s 4-8 disaster.
Now his mission is steering West Virginia out of a two-game losing skid and into a strong finish.
The Mountaineers (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) close the regular season with games against No. 13 Kansas State and Iowa State, providing a chance to play their way up or down the bowl food chain.
While the 33-16 loss to Texas was still fresh Tuesday—and still unacceptable from standpoints of effort and execution—West Virginia already has surpassed its admittedly dire preseason projections. (Included among those was the now-infamous Oliver Luck assertion that a 4-8 repeat could represent improvement based on WVU facing a tough schedule.)
Holgorsen said he wasn’t surprised to see West Virginia, which spent three weeks in the AP top 25, become relevant again.
“News flash for you: We expected improvement as well,” he said.
“I see improvement. I think we’re going to continue to improve, and I think a year from now you’re going to be looking at a team that’s even better than what we’ve got right now.”
Will 2015 be better? Holgorsen referenced that the 2015 senior class will be twice as large as this year’s, and the recruiting rankings appear favorable for next February’s intake. Those are encouraging factors, but what about the sense that West Virginia’s offense—which stands to lose six impact seniors—is headed for a regression?
“What we dealt with last year,” Holgorsen said, “I don’t anticipate ever having to deal with that (again), with so many new players put in position where they have to play as first-year players.”
You can’t fault any coach for pumping up his program’s future, yet this is what we know about next season’s offense:
• It won’t feature Kevin White and Mario Alford, who own 144 of the receivers’ 207 catches (69 percent).
• It won’t have Quinton Spain or Mark Glowinski, the team’s top offensive linemen (for whom no reliable backups exist).
• It will feature a first-year starter at quarterback (or Paul Millard).
That actually looks strikingly similar to what West Virginia’s offense encountered in 2013.
Bye week benefits: The off week will be most beneficial to a collection of West Virginia starters who have rarely left the field all season.
“We’ve got five offensive linemen that have played about 900 snaps. We’ve got a linebacker and three safeties—in Kwit and K.J. and Karl and Dravon—that have all played about 800 snaps, so the snaps are starting to pile up,” Holgorsen said. “Those guys will be practicing, but they won’t be hitting, so it will give those guys a chance to rest up.”
The running backs can use some downtime, too. While a committee approach relieves some of the fatigue, West Virginia averages 85.6 plays per game, second-most to Baylor (89.2) in the Big 12. Wendell Smallwood’s 153 offensive touches are fifth in the league behind Baylor’s Shock Linwood (180), Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, (165) Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington (163) and Texas’ running back Malcolm Brown (161).
“Wendell’s wearing down—it’s pretty visible,” Holgorsen said. “And Rushel (Shell) can’t get healthy right now. Thank ankle’s been a nuisance for him for about a month.”
Reflections on WVU’s letdown: What Holgorsen noticed in realtime Saturday was validated by reviewing the loss to Texas on video.
“It was pretty evident that they were ready to play more than we were ready to play. The mindset that this team has done a good job with—with effort, energy, excitement, flying around, having fun, playing the game—existed in the first nine games. It didn’t exist in this one.”