THE WATER COOLER: LOST EDITION
Welcome to THE WATER COOLER. For all you newcomers this is our weekly postgame feature here at TheSignalCaller.com. The idea is we take in everything we saw on Saturday, marinate on it for awhile while everyone else is in a rush to throw their recap at you, and then provide our thoughts for you to read Tuesday, hoping to provide some insightful nuggets that you can drop on your buddies around the water cooler (see what I did there) and look all educated. With introductions out of the way let’s get it going.
I think one of the things I like the most about what we do here at theSignalCaller is waiting a couple days to post this game wrap-up. Recaps written in the immediacy of post-game are by there nature colored significantly by the immediacy of the moment. There’s no time for considered opinions or to marinate on things. You see, you react, you write. Given a couple days to live with a game, however, you get a chance to set things more firmly in context and see the bigger picture. Having said that I’ll apologize for the delay this week. I was a little sick, then I was a little busy. But we’re back.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I posted my recap over at the Smoking Musket less than 45 mintues after the game ended. I was accurate in my depiction of a lost team, but with the image of an in-over-his-head quarterback fresh in my mind, I focused too much on that specific position and didn’t spread enough of the blame to running backs, the offensive line or most importantly coaches.
Fortunately I have this space to give a more considered look at things and will attempt to do that today. Maybe you’ll agree, maybe you won’t. I’m going to try to take a step back from the loss and make some larger statements about WVU and us.
Moving The Goal Posts
I’ve always felt one of the keys to success in life is setting expectations. Whether it’s with your jobs, with relationships or really with anything, what someone THINKS you’re supposed to be doing is often every bit as important as what you actually DO. This is a place where frankly WVU has gotten a little screwed this season. Sure everybody entered 2013 giving lip service to the fact that it was going to be a rebuilding year, but as is often the case with fans, that all went out the door as soon as the ball was kicked into the air on August 31st. A spirited effort in Norman only made things worse. What we’ve seen this year is what happens when you have to turn over not only a QB, but all your running backs and wide receivers.
And that’s not even the most important part.
WVU lost 3 players off the offensive line from last season who combined to start 126 games between them. That’s a big deal. That’s a HUGE deal. And not just any 3 guys, but the 3 guys who played side-by-side on the interior. That’s 3 guys that have played with each other in some form or fashion for 2-3 years. That’s 3 guys who know each other’s tendencies, know who’s taking who in the zone blocking scheme and probably what the other guy’s ordering for dinner that night. It’s a level of cohesion that’s uncommon and probably had a lot to do for the record breaking offensive success in 2011 and 2012 – a run that came in stark contrast to one of the worst offensive showings in recent memory from the 2010 unit. That kind of dramatic improvement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Joe Madsen, Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun were really, really, really good.
So this was a WVU team – specifically an offensive unit – that had some growing to do. Factor in that they’ve been playing under multiple quarterbacks since spring practice and you probably add to that learning curve. Was it the best move to set a redshirt freshman as the lynch pin of an offense with so many unknowns at every position? It sure didn’t help. We’ve seen growing pains with the emphasis on pain but we should have expected to see growing pains. For some reason hanging 41 on Georgia State in their third game at the FBS level made people forget that.
Final item on expectations – Dana Holgorsen had developed a reputation for being able to make high-quality chicken cordon bleu from all manner of chicken “stuff.” Jed covered it nicely in his ‘Hot Reads’ column from June:
Coming out of Snyder (Texas) High School, Cumbie hadn’t even been offered a scholarship by Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach – or by any other major college program for that matter. He had merely been invited to show up in Lubbock ready to enroll in classes and practice football.
“We were all wondering ‘what are we going to do?’ Well, Sonny Cumbie stepped in there as a nobody,” said Holgorsen, “and he was great.”
When Brandon Weeden took the reins of Holgorsen’s offense at Oklahoma State that same year, he was an unknown redshirt junior – a baseball castoff who hadn’t started a game at quarterback since high school in 2001. Weeden entered 2010 with just 27 career pass attempts, but in just one season with Holgorsen, he threw for more than 4,200 yards and became OSU’s first all-conference quarterback since the 1930s.
Heading into 2008, Houston senior Mark Hafner had never caught more than 40 balls in a season. In one year under Holgorsen while he was the Cougars play caller, Hefner racked up 86 catches and 11 touchdowns.
Going into that same 2008 campaign, Holgorsen was also handed the chore of replacing standout feature back Anthony Alridge (1,597 yards). The coach simply plugged newcomer Bryce Beall into the system and helped him become the first freshman in UH history to break the 1,000-yard barrier (1,247).
Where talent is hidden, Holgorsen smokes it out. Where talent is already in place, Holgorsen enhances it.
For instance, when Holgorsen took over as the offensive coordinator at Houston, Case Keenum was a skilled but unpolished passer with nearly as many career interceptions (10) as touchdown tosses (14). In two seasons under Holgorsen, Keenum led the nation in total offense both years and threw for more than 10,000 yards, including 88 touchdown passes against just 26 interceptions en route to becoming college football’s all-time career passing leader.
I added the emphasis there because that one sentence it succinctly summed up everything we believed about Holgorsen, all reinforced by the litany of history listed above that excerpt. Given the parade of prolific offenses he’d created from spare parts, WVU seemed to have more than enough pieces in place to “plug and play.”
Looking back, all I can wonder is was that a realistic expectation? A fair expectation?
Let’s move on…..
I’m not going to dwell on this long, but WVU was exceedingly lucky at the end of 2011. Four times in their last four games they trailed at some point in the fourth quarter, and four times they managed to emerge victorious. They played their way into the Orange Bowl, but they had no small measure of help. It’s always better to be lucky that good. You can be legendary if you’re both. But that’s not something you can count on for long.
With that in mind, think how UNLUCKY this team has been for the last 11 and a half months – since Texas. The TCU loss resulted from one terribly blown call that was unable to be rectified by a quirk of camera angles and knees landing in the way. There was a laughably bad bounce in the Oklahoma State game. There was another last second one point loss to Oklahoma in a game where one of a hundred different little things could have turned the game. Then Oklahoma again this year where balls took amazingly good bounces for the Sooners at their own goal line and Maryland on Satruday where Stefon Diggs managed to muff not one but two punts that magically never took a nasty hop away from him.
Obviously WVU hasn’t played a particularly good brand of football and they certainly hasn’t helped themselves, but in a game as emotional as football it’s impossible to know what can result from one little good break. If you want to look at the other side of the coin, how do things look if South Florida doesn’t fumble late in 2011 or if Rutgers manages to cling to their 4th quarter lead that same year? The outcome of a game can completely turn on very small things and the effect that winning or losing has on mindset cannot be overstated. WVU hasn’t helped themselves much for the last 11 months but they haven’t gotten much help either.
That doesn’t excuse everything but I think it’s worth noting.
Aside from the run of crappy luck, there are a lot of people associated with this team making bad decisions. From players to coaches, nobody is immune (well, a few people but we’ll get to them a little later). At the top Dana Holgorsen has got to be more intelligent with things like timeouts and replay challenges. Certainly that didn’t matter much on Saturday, but it will sometime soon. The timeouts aren’t the REAL problem though, they’re a symptom. They need to be used because players aren’t in position. There are 12 men on the field, there are problems getting the play in, or there is ambiguity on how to handle instant replay. These all smack of a team that isn’t focused and isn’t doing the little things right. For the million things (talent, weather, crowd) that a head coach has no control over, that’s one very big thing that they do. Dana Holgorsen has to get that right.
The replay is an entirely different issue. Against Oklahoma he was criticized for wasting a challenge and then a timeout on a pair of plays that it seemed pretty clear weren’t going to be reversed. Then on Saturday he DIDN’T challenge a call (a Dreamius Smith fumble) that had an excellent chance of being reversed. Obviously it was a huge failing by the game officials to not review that, but it’s an even bigger failing by Holgorsen to let it go unreviewed when he has a challenge to burn.
Many on Twitter defended him saying “you can’t criticize when he does challenge and then criticize when he doesn’t challenge.” I don’t care if he challenges or doesn’t, I care when he’s wrong, and on replay he’s been wrong more that he’s been right lately. Again, for all the things head coaches can’t control this is something they can. He’s got to do a better job there.
It sucks that the WVU defense has worked their rear ends off for 9 months to completely overhaul themselves and nobody cares. That was a historically bad defensive unit last year – quite possibly the worst to ever pass through Morgantown. They’ve been transformed into not just a decent unit but a very good unit. They shut down Stefon Diggs on Saturday. That hadn’t been done. They gave Maryland all kinds of trouble and refused to quit on a day when they spent nearly twice as much time on the field as the offense. That was impressive.
The job that Keith Patterson, Tony Gibson and Brian Mitchell among others have done in just a few months is outstanding and the commitment that players have made to redefining themselves needs to be recognized and appreciated. Darwin Cook needed to step up and be a leader in this secondary, and with 2 pics and a forced fumble, he’s been an absolute monster. WVU needed linebackers – they got linebackers. Doug Rigg and Nick Kwiatkoski are everywhere. KJ Dillon was playing very well before getting dinged up. Travis Bell turned heads in the spring game and has been very good so far. The list could go on.
These guys were ringing bells on Saturday and put up the best performance you’ll ever see from a unit that lost 37-0 (more on that here in just a seond). I hate it for them that such hard work is being overlooked. They deserve better.
What The Signal Caller Sees
Dana’s talked a lot about the ‘energy’ of a team before a game and it’s not just lip service. Before the games Jed chatted with Holgorsen, the subject of the Terrapins came up. Holgorsen’s questions weren’t about how the Terp QB looked in warm-ups or how explosive Stefon Diggs looked coming out of his cuts. The one question he did ask – “how does their energy look?”
A major emphasis of the WVU defense has been forcing turnovers. Despite a solid first half performance, it wasn’t satisfactory because there were no turnovers. Trailing 30-0 and with an offense going nowhere fast, the defense finally forced one that was recovered at the Maryland 26. It’s what they’d been trying to do all day and was a huge boon to the sideline. Unfortunately the Mountaineer offense gave it right back on the next play with a Charles Sims fumble. So what did the WVU D do? Got it right back 5 plays later with another fumble recovery at the Terps 33. Two plays after that Wendell Smallwood fumbled again after a long gain that was headed inside the Maryland 10 yard line. The defensive players on the sideline didn’t grumble or eye-roll. They grabbed their helmets and got to work. Maybe last season gave them a little sympathy for a side of the ball that’s struggling.
The WVU defense was good. How good? Here are a couple numbers for you:
- In the first half they held Maryland to 3/9 on 3rd down where the Terps faced an average of 3rd and 8.2 to get the first down.
- Stefon Diggs was held to his least productive day ever with 2 catches for 13 yards and a long of 9.
- Maryland gained 113 yards rushing – the exact same number as the Mountaineers. Only difference? It took the Terrapins 47 rushes to WVU’s 25.
- Maryland gained only 330 total yards on 72 plays. That’s an average of 4.6 yards per play. If that were a team’s season average, it would place the WVU defense 29th in the country. Not too bad for a unit that spent over 38 minutes on the field.
There is a lot not to like about how this WVU team is playing right now and a lot of questions about how they are being coached. Mike Casazza did a nice job of laying out a ton of info over at his blog on Tuesday and I’d recommend it – it’s a good read. Having said all that, never lose sight of the fact that this has always been a rebuilding effort, and within the context of how long a coaching career can last we’re very early into the Dana Holgorsen era. One interesting thing Mike did in his blog was lay out the first 30 games of both the Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen periods and compare and contrast. I’ll do him one better and give the record of Rich Rodriguez 30 games in: 14-16.
That 30th game was against Rutgers in 2003. It was the beginning of a 7 game winning streak and a string of 3 Big East titles won or tied. It takes time for things to happen in football and it takes a little luck and it takes a little belief. The frustration is with how quickly the center can disintegrate and things can spin off out of control, how an historic win in front of 100,000 Texans can be rendered meaningless in two short weeks. But the beauty of this game is that things can come together with equal speed. An average blowout loss to Louisville can become a transformative moment in a program’s history, a quarterback buried on the depth chart can become a legend and a whole can become far greater than the sum of its collective parts.
As a man once said “it can happen, and we WANT it to happen.”
We’ll learn a lot about this team on Saturday.
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’m a staff writer.