ORLANDO, Fla. — Great expectations, when achieved, beget indelible memories, catchy slogans and commemorative T-shirts. Those same expectations, however, become daggers when left unfulfilled.
Witness the redness in the eyes of David Sills. Across three mostly splendid seasons he piled up 35 touchdown catches but zero championships. You sensed beyond a doubt he would’ve swapped a batch of those end-zone celebrations for a mere whiff of the other.
Witness the impatient finger-tapping of coach Dana Holgorsen during Friday’s postgame press conference. He waived the customary 10-minute cooling-off period so that his team could hasten its escape from another Orlando loss. No worries — his team had cooled off from the instant Oklahoma left Morgantown month ago.
No secret that this season’s mission was Big 12 championship or bust for West Virginia. No Mountaineers reported to preseason camp pining for a Camping World Bowl invitation. So Will Grier and Yodny Cajuste bailed, and Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms succumbed to injuries they might have weathered had the stage been grander. In light of diminished ambitions and a severely diminished roster, this 34-18 loss to Syracuse didn’t really make things that much worse.
After those offensive stars put this season to bed early, you wonder if Friday night might have been getaway day for David Long also.
Witness the sideline-to-sideline exploits of the junior linebacker, whose 14 tackles prevented Syracuse from enjoying an even comfier margin. He recorded a TFL, giving him 35 in his last 20 games. Afterward, in what sure sounded like an exit interview, Long stood in a stadium concourse and discussed his rapidly approaching timetable for an NFL draft decision.
“Probably by this weekend,” he said. “I’m going to think about that tonight and in the morning, but right now I’m going to take this loss on the chin.”
Long told me he would speak with his mom, his dad and his girlfriend before making an announcement. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson told me he already met with Long’s family in early December to weigh the scenario.
“We had a great discussion. Everything was on the table — good and bad, positive and negative,” Gibson said. “Whatever he decides to do, he’s done everything asked of him here.”
West Virginia fans, allow yourself some optimism amid this three-game sinkhole. Envision Long returning in 2019 and playing beside Charlie Benton, Vandarius Cowan, Quondarius Qualls, Brendan Ferns, Dylan Tonkery and Josh Chandler. That’s a linebacking crew unmatched during the program’s seven-year Big 12 tenure, and one that allows mighty-mite JoVanni Stewart to become a safety again.
Might Long be compelled to commit another year to college after earning a degree and a conference player of the year award? It’s doubtful, though at least he respected Friday night’s loss enough to not to pile on with a see-ya-later decree.
Gibson, who no doubt knows which direction Long is leaning, sounded like a coach prepared to kiss his star linebacker goodbye.
“I love David Long like he was my own son,” Gibson said. “If he comes back, obviously, he’ll have another great year. And if not, I’m going to hug him, tell him I love him and ‘Go give it your best.’”
West Virginia’s best this season produced spectacular blowouts, Heisman banter, and an 8-1 start lifting it to No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Then came the sort of fade that we’ve stomached so often in recent years. A bitter meltdown in Stillwater, that death race against the Sooners, and finally, another beating at the hands of Syracuse.
“This trophy is heavy,” said Orange coach Dino Babers. “I’m glad we got it.”
Holgorsen has only two bowl trophies in seven tries, which must mean something, even in an era where postseason games have lost some luster.
“A lot of people are like, ‘This bowl game really don’t matter or anything like that.’ I couldn’t disagree more,” he said.
“Disappointing loss, disappointing end of the season, but I’m proud of our guys. We fought. We tried. You know, that’s all I can ask for out of these guys. They laced it up and they tried, you know. Just came up a little bit short.”
On this breezy sendoff in Orlando, there went the eulogy of a 2018 season, from a coach who expected more.