High School Football

Mountaineers flinch in the face of mediocrity

West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett hands off to Wendell Smallwood during Saturday’s game against Texas.


AUSTIN, Texas — Against Baylor, West Virginia was on point. Against TCU, it lost by a point.

And against the third-best team in Texas? Let’s just call this another testament to keeping Austin weird.

The Longhorns jumped ahead by targeting their model of anonymity Geoff Swaim, whose zero TDs in 22 career games left him buried in the fine print of the scouting report’s fine print. (When West Virginia’s extra blocking end made himself conspicuous, it was by false starting on fourth-and-inches at the goal line.)

While Tony Gibson could forgive the Swaim touchdown, he was less tolerant of the next two. Something about a suspect Texas line springing Johnathan Gray for 79 yards on consecutive carries didn’t taste right.

If only West Virginia could have countered with its own No. 12 nationally-ranked offense. Yet execution and toughness weren’t hallmarks Saturday. Between its second series of the game and its final series of garbage time, WVU failed on 13 consecutive third-down tries.

At least there was a Lou Groza nominee to bail out those stalled drives. Except that Josh Lambert yanked two kicks wide left and saw another long-range try pre-empted by a delay-of-game.

Maybe had West Virginia delayed this game another week, the shock of losing at the horn to TCU would have worn off. Of course that excuse doesn’t really hold water, considering how the Frogs—who had to cope with an equally tricky hangover from winning in Morgantown—recovered in the same weeklong span to fillet K-State by 21.

Time was, teams didn’t need an excuse for losing in Austin, and Dana Holgorsen seemed to be speaking from 2009 when he remarked in his postgame news conference that “Texas has great players.” What about nine straight home losses to ranked teams signified greatness? What about this season even hinted at adequacy? After all, the Longhorns entered Saturday boasting victories over four teams who were 6-23 against FBS competition.

No greatness here. (In a rethink of my earlier line, Texas probably isn’t even the third-best in its own state, not with seven-win A&M taking down Auburn.) Despite the name on the jersey, UT remains a fragile, meandering team so starved for affirmation that it picked up head coach Charlie Strong and crowd-surfed him around the locker room. Ah, the unbridled joy of being 5-5 …

Strong admitted the last time his players gave him such a pick-me-up was at Louisville. In 2011. After beating, you guessed it, another 24t-ranked West Virginia team.

“They didn’t air that (video) in the locker room, did they?” he asked. “West Virginia’s going to be mad.”

Mad at itself in many ways.

Backing up, for example, to the goal-line misadventure of the first quarter, to a sequence that loomed heavier as West Virginia’s offensive touchdown drought reached 68 minutes (tracing back to the previous week). Wendell Smallwood’s third-and-1 run didn’t break the plane, so WVU rushed back into formation and appeared ready to surge in. Only the replay booth intervened, stopping play to confirm Smallwood didn’t score.

Even without tempo on his side, Holgorsen liked the fourth-down gamble and sent in the jumbo package. Before Clint Trickett could bark the cadence, the freshly inserted Russell Haughton-James moved.

“They did a little stunt and the (defensive) guy moved, which made our guy flinch,” Trickett said.

There went the encapsulation of West Virginia’s past two weeks. So near to one unfinished mission and then doomed to start backing up.

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