This year’s revised mission? Fronting Big 12’s second tier


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In the fanciful imaginations of some West Virginia fans, a certain ex-coach plots to leave the desert tanned and contrite, coming home to restore the program he once made prominent.

To that end, and surely this was entirely coincidental, Dana Holgorsen’s play-calling Saturday resembled a RichRod tribute, retrofitted with a run-heavier ratio than any game Holgorsen has orchestrated in his five seasons here.

Running it 70 percent of the time (57 carries, 24 passes), the Mountaineers celebrated their survival of Texas Tech and Mountaineers fans celebrated by asking of their current coach: Why not run it even more?

Seriously, the only thing tainting West Virginia’s epic, 16-play drain on the final 6:47 were the three times Skyler Howard threw the ball. One pass went for minus-2 yards and two others became clock-stopping incompletions that temporarily saved Texas Tech from the ground attack it was powerless to stop.

The boos served to remind coach and quarterback that WVU’s run game had leverage, momentum and its boot squarely on the Red Raiders’ necks. Each pass felt cute and unnecessary, like the movie villain who ties the hero to a slow-moving table saw only to vacate the premises before the job is finished.

(Even Wendell Smallwood admitted Howard’s throws “caught us all off guard” as WVU flexed to own the final minutes. “The linemen were looking around, we saw the ball in the air, and the defensive guys were all yelling. We’re like, ‘No, let’s keep running. Let’s keep getting first downs.’ ”)

The direct approach worked best during a 31-26 victory—Smallwood and Rushel Shell delivering their 274-yard combo to the gut of a Texas Tech defense noticeably short on guts this season. Howard, after throwing two interceptions, said he checked from run calls to pass plays “a few times, but I really didn’t have to.” His two-fifths reconstituted offensive line that struggled with pass protection compensated by taking all it needed between the tackles.

Such was the hope since earlier this week when Howard—still the consummate pump-up partner despite a four-game losing streak—wrote “Get mean” on the offensive line’s meeting room board. Saturday’s knock-around of Tech showed the kind of angry mentality that will suffice down the stretch as WVU tries to run through the Big 12’s second-division teams.

It’s suitable company for West Virginia, which limited Texas Tech to a season-low 378 yards partly because Kliff Kingsbury’s receivers dropped a series of Patrick Mahomes’ passes. The Big 12’s youngest coach surely broiled behind those black shades when three trips inside the WVU 30 garnered three points. A sizzling new hire on his first trip to Morgantown in 2013, Kingsbury sports only a 10-18 record since.

Speaking of eroding support, next up for WVU is Texas, capable of rushing for 313 yards vs. Oklahoma and 119 vs. Iowa State. So inconsistent, so flawed, so unsatisfied with the current status. In a few blinks the Longhorns have slipped from the nation’s top 5 to treading water in the Big 12’s bottom five.

West Virginia can empathize, eight years removed from contending for the BCS title. Many fans are not satisfied with how the coaches and situations have changed, and the most sentimental cling to rumors about a reunion starring you-know-who. In lieu of that long shot, wins such as Saturday’s exist to tide them over.

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