THE WATER COOLER: WHOOPIN EDITION
By Brandon Priddy : @abpriddy
OK, I like to think of myself as a clever fella but I’ll be honest with you, I’m running out of ways to write about these losses. This latest one happened to be an interesting mash-up of the last 3 losses, a winnable game and 21 point blowout all at once. The defense played well enough to win and the offense played well enough to not be putting the defense in repeatedly awful positions (although still far from the well-oiled machine we last saw in Austin) but none of it mattered as the third side of the ball managed to completely sabotage any chance WVU had to make it a game.
As a WVU fan, I have a Ph.D in special teams snafus. I could teach a college-level class in back-breaking kick/punt return TDs. Yet even by that high standard Saturday was brutal. They didn’t stop at giving up a kick return TD to squelch any momentum that had been built by Paul Millard’s improbable TD to cut it to 14-7. No, they saw that kneecapper and raised us not one but TWO bone-headed turnovers. First by being unable to handle a simple squib kick and second when they were victimized by an errant punt bounce that hit Tavon Austin’s leg when he amazingly failed to heed his own advice and clear the area. It’s difficult to win on the road against the best offense in the country but it’s damn near impossible when you give up the ball twice inside your own 15 yard line.
And thus it was that despite as good an offensive performance as we’ve seen in a month and despite a defense that bent, bent, bent but didn’t totally break until the last 10 minutes, WVU still found itself on the losing end of a game for the 4th straight time – and convincingly so. You kept getting the feeling that they were just ONE play away from breaking it open – and that was about the time they made a mistake that dug the whole twice as deep.
It was a demoralizing result in that it obscured a lot of the genuinely good things the team did. All the sudden Stedman’s resurgent 225 yards on 14 catches (nothing big, just the second-best receiving performance in 121 years of WVU football) didn’t matter so much. Nobody cared that the embattled defensive unit held Cowboy tailback Joseph Randle to 74 yards on 21 carries for a 3.5 yards per carry average (his season average is (he had been averaging 5.3 YPC). And it was too bad because for a team desperately in need of some positives, the mistakes were too large to let any rays of light shine through.
Expect the Worst
There was a telling moment in the second quarter. Tavon Austin caught a quick Geno Smith pass on third down and squirted through the Cowboy defense for a 17 yard touchdown, but as he darted to paydirt a flag came out behind him. It was apparent from the reaction of everyone on the WVU team including the sideline and Austin himself that they 100% expected the penalty to be on them and wipe out the score. As it happened it was an offsides on Oklahoma State and the touchdown stood, but for a moment you got a glimpse into the reality of a season where expecting the worst just keeps you from being disappointed.
It’s worth noting that in the next five minutes Oklahoma State would score a quick TD and then recover a muffed kick return, so maybe they were all just a little early.
This Is Why They Expect the Worst
Watching the Tavon punt muff on replay was painful. At first glance it seemed an unforgivable mental error for a senior leader, but if you watch it again you get an appreciation for how unlucky of a bounce that ball really took. It went high and landed near the sideline about 25 feet from the returner. At that point it hit the turf and careened directly at Austin (missing several players on its path), who ironically had been waving at folks to get away. But it didn’t come directly at him and give him a chance to just make the catch – no, that would have been too easy. Instead it bounced again on the turf about 3 feet in front of him which was probably about the worst place on planet earth it could have hit. Too close to avoid, but too far away to catch.
Should he have been farther away from the ball? Of course. But did it take an extraordinarily bad bounce that you wouldn’t see if you pounded 1000 punts at #1? Absolutely. It’s been that kind of year.
This is Also Why They Expect The Worst
Pretty brutal stretch near the end of the third quarter. First a Tavon Austin TD is wiped out with a holding call – but the refs completely whiff on the blatant facemask as he crossed the goal line. So what should have been a first and goal from the 4 became 2nd and goal from the 17. We’re not even close to done. Next play Geno gets his feet tangled up with Buie on the handoff to lose more yards back to third and goal from the 20. And finally the throw to Stedman Bailey on third down finds only air as Bailey ran a completely different route. Field goal. Three plays that were equal parts bad luck and poor execution but cost 4 precious points at a time when they were needed.
Six Plays That Lost The Game
Facing 2nd and 3 from their own 42 and trailing by 7, Geno just barely overthrew Jordan Thompson on a post for a play that could have easily gone the distance. WVU managed the first down on the next play but after that a Buie run was stymied and Dustin Garrison hauled in a swing pass for a gain of 6. On 3rd and 4 they took another shot but Austin couldn’t make what would have been a difficult (albeit not impossible) catch. Drive stalled.
Tyler Bitancurt then let loose what can only be described as a textbook punt from the OSU 45. The metaphor gods were given a perfect gift as the ball hit at the 10 and took a high bounce that let no less than six Mountaineers watched it land and roll right into the end zone for a touchback. Every player sat around waiting for the guy next to them to do something and as a result nobody did anything and an enormous opportunity was lost – a perfect encapsulation of the second half of this season.
OSU was saved the challenge of mounting a drive from their own 2 (where they had demonstrated uncharacteristic caution with 3 straight runs up the middle that went nowhere earlier in the game) and instead got to operate comfortably from the 25. And that is how a 1 touchdown deficit becomes 2. And how a chance at a win becomes a 3 touchdown loss.
Given the similarity in scheme and histories of WVU’s coaches, you could make a case that in a lot of ways Oklahoma State represents where WVU wants to be. Holgorsen said as much in the postgame press conference: “I know what this place is about. That team we played played with a tremendous amount of effort….and have been doing it at a very high rate for the last three or four years. That’s what we’ve got to get to.” But in the Cowboys I also saw an often undisciplined team that racked up an impressive 6 (or 7, I lost count) personal fouls – including a facemask, two chop blocks, a pair on the same kick return and another unnecessary roughness on a fair catch punt. The results speak for themselves but here’s hoping that Dana can get a little better reign on that effort than Mike Gundy and Company.
Man Stedman Bailey is Strong
We got another classic Stedman stiff arm at the beginning of the third quarter when he hauled in a long Geno pass and took off. He amazingly reached behind him to hold off the defender, spun the guy around and managed to keep his feet as the same guy grabbed at him again as he sprawled to the turf. Unfortunately all this gave a couple other defenders time to catch up and corral him, but it was a feat of strength that would have made Frank Costanza proud and was probably my second favorite stiff-arm after the Pitt game last year, which will always be #1. Sted, it was nice to see you back to your old self.
Jed's View From The Sideline
Jed asked Coach Holgorsen about the wind before the game. His answer? “Let me put it to you like this, I bet the subject of wind didn’t come up all week with those guys (pointing at OSU).” It was at least nice to see WVU handle it worlds better than they did against Texas Tech. Just one more step in becoming a Big 12 program….
Oklahoma State hit a pair of big plays for 2 of their first-half touchdowns: a reverse to wide receiver Josh Stewart for a 46 yard touchdown and a 48 yard bomb to tight end Blake Jackson off of play-action. What do those two plays have in common? They’re aimed at exploiting an over-pursuing rush defense. WVU’s front line seems to have tightened things up and was pretty solid on Saturday, but don’t be surprised to see a lot more of these type of plays to exploit weakness on the backside. As one hole is filled another seems to emerge….
OH MY GOD CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW BIG AND FAST THE SEC IS ON THIS EARTH SWEET MOTHER OF --- what’s that? Alabama lost? The SEC is on the outside looking in for the BCS title game? And they're outside looking in at one of them fancy-shmancy hurry-up teams and another Big 12 team? Oh. Huh. Wow.
Given that these don’t necessarily seem to be atypical conditions, doesn't it make the recent production of the league and it's signalcallers that much more impressive?
And he was just getting started. So great to see Steady B back to his normal self.
Also good to see this offense finally find some semblance of rhythm. Sure they lost the game, but it’s got to make you feel better about the last 3 games.
Again – this team did a lot of things wrong, but it also did a lot of things right. It was just encouraging to see people do the types of things we’re accustomed to seeing them do. Stedman handed out a couple stiff arms, Geno fired a couple bullets……there was some good there if you could hold your nose and find it.
Holgorsen in the postgame press conference: “I would guess they played 65 guys. We didn’t even travel 65 guys.” So don’t believe the hype. Yes WVU came into this conference in a blaze of glory but there is some hard work to do before they’re ready to challenge for a conference title.
This can’t be overstated enough. The Big 12 is a huge step up and the teams on the other sideline have a whole lot to do with this record looking like it is. You want to know what uneven performances like we saw last year against Pitt and South Florida look like at the adult’s table? You found out the last two weeks. You simply can’t get away with some of the dumb things WVU does against teams like TCU and Oklahoma State. Last year’s team was good, but it was also lucky. Put them against this slate and I don’t know that you’d see dramatically different results.
With some of the doom and gloom I’ve heard from Mountaineer fans, may want to send a couple of these guys to Morgantown….just to be safe.
Shots from the Sideline
Hope I was at least able to give you a few laughs and that you can join us back here on Friday morning as we hoist the flag and get ready to once again do battle with the invaders. Have a great week!
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to hit me up with ideas or suggestions on how to make these pre and post-game wrap ups better and more informative. We’re here for you. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter: @abpriddy. I tweet throughout the game and love a little back-and-forth. Also check out more of my work over at SmokingMusket.com where I just became one of the newest staff writers.