MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This West Virginia-TCU thing went cliffhanger-crazy again.
Three games in three seasons decided on the final play each time.
A margin that thin means every play invites scrutiny and every decision attracts second-guessing, so let’s train our hindsight squarely at the prime talking point that followed West Virginia’s 31-30 loss:
Dana Holgorsen couldn’t have gone more conservative had Dick Armey been in his headset.
This was a scared-looking offense in the fourth quarter, when all three drives quickly fizzled to three-and-outs. How many times did West Virginia attempt to throw the ball in that span? Twice. How many TCU defenders were in the box on those other seven run plays? Typically six or seven. How much yardage did West Virginia compile on those dreadful three possessions? Negative-2.
Bear in mind, Holgorsen’s offense was facing a mild wind, though nothing like the F4 you would’ve presumed from the sequence of handoffs.
Some context: At the 13:10 mark, WVU started from its 8. That’s cautious territory for most coaches, and even an offensive genius could defend playing it safe back there with a nine-point lead. Three Dreamius Smith carries essentially went nowhere, and the running back was contacted behind the line on all three plays.
The lead was trimmed to 30-28 the next time West Virginia took possession, and with 7:25 remaining, you sensed that cushion wasn’t sufficient. Starting from the Mountaineers’ 28, Smith went for no gain on first down before Trickett threw incomplete off the mitts of Kevin White—the other team’s Kevin White. Even riskier was what transpired on third down when TCU imploded the pocket and jarred the ball loose. (Wendell Smallwood’s recovery saved the moment and marked the only time he touched the ball on WVU’s final six possessions.)
West Virginia’s final fruitless drive began at its 43—a piece of great fortune, really, considering how Wes Tonkery, at that very spot, had evaded the eyeballs of eight officials while collaring B.J. Catalon on a fourth-down pass route. (The same refs who missed Josh Carraway going Woody Hayes on Trickett’s facemask.) Nonetheless, WVU had the ball and the lead with 3:46 left.
What it didn’t have was a single gram of confidence.
This was a national top-10 offense, playing at home, situated near midfield, and likely needing one first down to ruin Lee Corso’s pregame prediction. Yet all WVU derived from such an advantageous setup was a series of three Andrew Buie runs that gained 0, 1 and minus-3 yards.
The only time Holgorsen felt comfortable putting the ball in the air was on Nick O’Toole’s punt. (And even that became a low, wobbly dud of 35 yards.)
Where was the Holgorsen who used to mock teams for chewing clock and punting the burden over to their defense? Where was the daredevil who wanted his team to go win the game rather than hoping the opponent might lose it? Clearly his aggressive streak was missing Saturday. Whether it filtered down to his players or bubbled up from their mistakes was less the issue than the offensive staff’s inability to remedy it.
Rather obviously, Holgorsen didn’t trust Trickett to make a late throw because the quarterback—shaken by two interceptions and stirred by two fumbles—had become a jittery shell of himself. Holgorsen didn’t trust his offensive line because it was being owned by TCU in the second half. It’s anyone’s guess as to what befell Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood after their first-half fumbles. (The postgame interview session proved a dead-end when no offensive players were allowed to speak to reporters.)
By that juncture, Patterson was laying out TCU’s resume for the College Football Playoff committee, a presentation made possible because his kicker punched through a last-second field goal. And because West Virginia showed no punch at all in the last 15 minutes.