THE WATER COOLER: BOWL MOVEMENT EDITION
by Brandon Priddy : @abpriddy
That couldn’t have possibly gone worse.
What the Orange Bowl was last year – a glimpse at how good things can be for this staff and program when it’s hitting on all cylinders and a reason to be irrationally optimistic – is what the Pinstripe Bowl was for the program this year. An exposure of every liability associated with the “air raid.” Susceptibility to inclimate weather, inability to match “power football” teams and the downward spiral of both offense and defense when the O side of the ball can’t find their rhythm. Whether or not these are valid criticisms of the style of play, they all reared their heads in some form or fashion Saturday and at least one of those reasons will most assuredly appear in any offseason criticism of the Mountaineers.
Having said all that, just like we all got caught up in unrealistic expectations after last year’s Orange Bowl (I was as bad as anyone with this) we should caution ourselves against grand pronouncements after this game. Was this the best job a coaching staff has ever done? No. Does Dana Holgorsen need to do a better job of not allowing adverse conditions (be they weather-made or referee-made) affect his team? Absolutely. But does a disappointing season where a hand full of coin-toss moments that could have set things on a very different path didn’t pan out mean that this crew can’t do the job long term? No way.
Let’s hold our nose and take a closer look. (And if you’re interested in a report card I put together over at SmokingMusket.com, here it is.)
One More Time With Feeling – The Defense.
A lot of people will trot out the gory defensive numbers Syracuse put up on the ground against WVU. They’ll tell you the Mountaineers allowed 369 on the ground, both a 100 and 200 yard rusher and the weakness on the line is to blame. I guess you could say the poor defensive line play let the score get a bit out of hand, but this was a 5 point game at the half only 19-7 halfway through the third quarter.
Yes it was disheartening to see the one bright spot of the season in run defense collapse (which makes me wonder how much was simply a byproduct of the putrid pass D a la WVU’s 2001′s #1 nationally ranked pass defense), but the fact is this defense did some pretty good things, too. On a day when the special teams never did anything to provide good field position, this much-maligned unit did it twice. First there was Darwin Cook’s forced fumble and Terrance Garvin’s recovery to set up shop at the 50. Then there was Isaiah Bruce’s interception to give Geno and Company the ball at the Orange(men) 30. The first turnover resulted in a drive that was crippled by a 15 yard personal foul penalty and stalled right where it started – the 50. The second was given right back on the next play when Geno Smith had the ball knocked from his hand as he cocked back to pass it. Syracuse scored a fatal blow with a long TD run on the very next play.
Don’t ask a gorilla to turn a doorknob and don’t ask a snake to jump rope. This defense is what it is and if allowing 19 points through 37 minutes while also providing two possessions in scoring position – not to mention the goal line stop – isn’t good enough for you, I don’t know what to say. You clearly haven’t been watching these guys all year.
You want the formative moment of the entire game – here it is. With 7:55 left in the 3rd quarter WVU was down 19-7 but driving. Having come from the shadow of their own end zone, they faced a 4th and 2 from the Syracuse 28. After an afternoon of misses, they finally found the right call against the right defensive front and Andrew Buie took it to the end zone on a draw play. The lead was cut to five and the ‘eers were in business.
At this point things deteriorated from the mildly disorganized level at which they had been hovering since the head referee’s microphone stopped working sometime in the second quarter and descended into full-scale pandemonium.
First off let me say I watched the replay several times and caught the block Cody Clay put on his Orange(men) counterpart and it was a defendable call. Not egregious, but defendable. This wasn’t the (main) problem.
When the call was made, an incensed Holgorsen couldn’t talk to the ref he wanted to talk to in order to get an explanation of the penalty. I watched that part a few times, too and did a little lip-reading. We’re a family-friendly website, so I won’t transcribe what was said, but suffice to say Holgorsen asked repeatedly to speak with the line judge from this PAC 12 crew who threw the flag and was inexplicably denied. At this point I think his temper got the better of him and he called a timeout and began asking much more – shall we say, EMOTIONALLY – to speak with the ref in question. And as far as I know that was the entire purpose of the timeout.
At this point ESPN play-by-play man Chris Fowler reminds us that the microphones (and presumably pressbox spotters) weren’t working and they again didn’t know the player or even the penalty. He then went further in his analysis of the PAC 12 crew’s work: “I’ll say it again. The PAC 12 produces 4 of the 5 most penalized teams in the country. They will tell you it’s because more plays are run in an uptempo conference that results in more plays….but some of the coaches in the conference will tell you that the officials call it very differently.”
Now Chris Fowler is as diplomatic as they come in college football, and he has no bias or preference for any conference that I’ve ever noticed. Even more than that he gets the opportunity to talk to coaches all around the country with his College GameDay travels. If he’s specifically calling out a crew or conference for their body of work, I’ve got to believe there’s something there. And to remove any ambiguity as to whether this was a criticism, Fowler finished up by pointing out that PAC 12 officials will referee the BCS Championship game and more importantly “Notre Dame and Alabama are NOT heavily penalized teams.” He tossed on the normal platitudes about “maybe it’s not a factor” but the point was made.
Just like that a scoring opportunity was lost and the ‘Cuse lead remained intact. The WVU sideline and psyche came just a little more unglued and the path to defeat was cast in very solid plaster if not stone.
Then, just to remove any doubt as to the incompetency of this crew, around a minute later Geno Smith had the ball knocked from his hand in the type of ‘was he throwing or wasn’t he’ play made famous by the “Tuck Rule” NFL game of 2002. Now I watch a lot of football, and anytime that happens, it’s a virtual no-brainer that it’s reviewed (remember in college, the booth has the opportunity to review any play). For some reason there was no review in this case and Holgorsen was forced to burn his second timeout in a minute to deal with officiating.
Again – this WVU team lost because they were unprepared and they failed to overcome the adversity they faced. But they sure got some help and I’ll cringe anytime I see a PAC 12 crew for quite awhile.
There weren’t many bright spots on Saturday, but one of the few was always reliable Stedman Bailey. His two scoring catches were things of beauty and all day he demonstrated his strength and talent. First was his longest reception, a 59 yarder down the left sideline that got a boost when he stiff-armed a Syracuse defender without breaking stride and gained another 20 yards or so before being brought down. It’s the type of thing we’ve seen so much from him we take it for granted, but think about it. On a dead run with one arm he applied enough pressure to an opposing defender to knock him completely off his feet – and he never slowed down. There aren’t a lot of guys that can do that.
Then on his first scoring run he caught a quick slant and ran through an attempt at an arm tackle that was at least enough of an effort to tear part of his uniform (looked like a hand warmer) from his body. He never slowed down and scored easily. On his final score, he found himself matched up in man coverage and made first a little grab as he and his defender tussled before completely shoving the poor lad over with a quick hand motion that was deceptive enough to escape the attentions of even this most discerning of officiating crews.
People will spend all offseason talking about how to replace Geno, but for my money Stedman will leave the largest shoes to fill. That combination of strength and speed, even in an unimposing 5′-10″ 195 lb frame, is uncommon. Combined with disciplined route-running it’s downright deadly. On a day when the entire WVU roster didn’t do much to distinguish itself, Stedman demonstrated the type of skills that NFL GMs love to bring on-board. I hope he made himself a pile of money.
As much as 2011 had some big breaks that went the way of the Old Gold and Blue, 2012 did not. From the Stedman Bailey injury that started it all (I’ll always think that was the biggest cause of the mid-season offensive slide) to the blown call against TCU and the blown opportunities against Oklahoma, this was just one of those years. I mean, if you needed any further proof that this is a bad year for WVU fans, consider that Notre Dame will be playing for the BCS title and we’ll all be treated to repeated shots from January 2, 1989.
Sometimes it’s just not your night. Or week. Or season. It happened in 1992 and it happened again this year. Take heart – WVU will be back. And eventually that coin flips and lands with your side up.
Parting Shot II
One more quick one.
Ever since the wheels came off the Mountaineer bandwagon, two past WVU teams from the past have consistently popped into my head. First there was the aforementioned hard-luck 1992 team that lost games to one yard line fumbles (Penn St.) and inexplicable refereeing (Syracuse). That’s the only WVU team I can remember being as unlucky as this one. The other team was 2004.
Much like this squad, they spent the offseason reading their press clippings and talking up big expectations. There was tough talk and a healthy swagger pretty quickly morphed into crippling arrogance. Maybe guys weren’t quite as hungry after being told they were destined for greatness. Maybe those motors don’t run as well on accolades as they do on disrespect. Whatever the issue, it was a WVU team that didn’t have an edge and paid for it on the field. The disappointment with the final tally felt a lot like what we’re seeing now.
But the best thing about 2004 was 2005.
There were a lot of the same concerns going into that ’05 year as we’ll see going into ’12. Key pieces like Rasheed Marshall, Kay-Jay Harris, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry were gone and nobody was quite sure how those gaps would be filled.
That’s the wonderful thing about college football. With the quick turnaround and rapid physical growth that young men of that age can undergo, you never know. Going into that Louisville game seven years ago Mountaineer fans had no idea that the table was about to be set for a historic run. Nobody dreamed that the prospective single-season rushing record holder was buried on the depth chart or that an injury to the starting signalcaller would provide the opening for the emergence of a legend.
That’s what’s so damn fun about this crazy game we all love. The highs are highs, the lows are lows, and nobody knows when they’ll happen. 2013 looks to be a year of transition, but keep that head up.
You never know.
Now let’s look at some tweets.
Stay classy Orange(men). Stay classy.
Pretty much why I availed myself of the mute button and went with the MSN radio pregame/halftime/postgame. Holtz and may are even worse than borish – they’re PREDICTABLY borish. You know exactly what they’ll say before they say it. In a time when millions of folks in this country have found themselves jobless, these two have never missed a paycheck. Reasons like this are why I won’t be crying any tears when the evolving cable format renders ESPN irrelevant in 15 years.
Speaking of the Worldwide Leader:
In defense of the guys in the booth, WVU didn’t hold up their end of the bargain by keeping the game competitive, but some of the banter when things got away was downright awkward. If I want to hear grown men discuss sous chefs and espressos, I’ll watch Bravo. Like most people I’m a big Chris Fowler fan. Jesse Palmer however is and always has been awful.
And while we’re on the subject of Fowler, there was a pretty telling moment in the third quarter after the 12th or so huge momentum shifting officiating call of the game.
All he did was point out that 4 of the 5 most penalized teams in college football this season resided in the PAC 12. But you have to understand, for Fowler that’s the equivalent of holding up a “these refs suck” sign like John Cuzack in “Say Anything.”
Hey, at least they’ll be remembered, right! Right?
Now THAT’S what I call finding a silver lining! Bravo.
It was a privilege, Stedman. Go make yourself a dumptruck of money young man. You earned it.
And here’s a little forward-looking positivity as we wrap up the season.
This pissed me off on New Year’s Day. If there is a record specifically tied to rushing yards AS A QUARTERBACK, and you gain yards AS A RUNNING BACK I don’t see how those count in the QUARTERBACK column. I’m not going to get into the laughable comparison of Denard to Pat White as a QB, but by simple definition of the record, I don’t see how this qualifies. I’ll be curious to see if the NCAA releases any statements or clarifications here.
So that’s the season folks. Certainly not what we all had in mind in those heady days of early October, but sometimes these seasons happen. Thanks for following the Mountaineers this year alongside us and hopefully we provided some graveyard humor and insight as things fell apart down the stretch. You know what they say – a bad football season is better than a good baseball season. We’ll lick our wounds and be back and ready for action come spring practice. Come the late summer we’ll all be chomping at the bit and ready to do it all again…….we hope you’ll come back and join us. Bring a friend!
Be sure to keep an eye out for TheSignalCaller.com Magazine in the early summer and maybe we’ll even throw together a feature for the spring game.
Have a great offseason!
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 some more of my work over at SmokingMusket.com where I was fortunate enough to become one of the newest staff writers.