No. 1 on Dana Holgorsen’s list of things that he says needs immediately addressed with his football team is improving their mental toughness. That is now clear after observing West Virginia’s last two losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State when the Mountaineers were out of those games by halftime.
“My message to the team after the (Kansas State) game was we need to grow up,” Holgorsen said Monday morning. “We need to become a mature football team. We got beat by a mature football team and we need to become a mature football team. We need to be mentally tough, we need to be physically tough, and we need to improve ourselves each and every day.”
Heading into this year, it was evident that West Virginia had a veteran backfield with Geno Smith
and Shawne Alston
returning, an experienced offensive line, and some proven big-play guys such as Tavon Austin
and Stedman Bailey
in the receiver corps. But what slipped by all of us was the large number of inexperienced players that was going to be needed in supporting roles.
There were true freshmen slated to play this year, particularly on defense, but that number has only swelled since the beginning of the season. Two weeks ago against Texas Tech, Holgorsen pulled wide receiver Travares Copeland
’s redshirt and he ended up earning a start last Saturday against Kansas State.
Last weekend, true freshman Devonte Robinson
saw his first taste of college action against the Wildcats, bringing the number of true freshman that have played so far to 12. When you add redshirts to the equation, there were 18 freshmen and true freshmen that saw action during last Saturday’s ballgame against fourth-ranked Kansas State. By comparison, Kansas State played 10 freshmen, and of those 10, only one (redshirt freshman left guard Cody Whitehair) was in the starting lineup. K-State also played 21 seniors, including nine senior starters on defense.
Eighteen is a high number of freshmen to see the field – a total you would expect from a rebuilding program, not one some were touting as a national title contender.
Having to play this many freshmen is not a formula for success at any level, especially in a power conference such as the Big 12, and now West Virginia’s youth is beginning to rear its ugly head as the season wears on.
“Young kids don’t know how to be mentally tough,” Holgorsen explained. “It takes being in those situations to truly understand it. It’s hard to compare ourselves with Kansas State because they’re a mature team and we’re not right now. From a program standpoint it’s kind of a model. From a teamwork standpoint, we’ll strive to get ourselves into that position.”
With a national championship clearly out of the picture, and a Big 12 title also unlikely, West Virginia’s focus now has to be on getting better each week and finishing the season strong.
“All these other teams that exist, depth is a question for every team and every program, but when you can replace guys with older, more mature guys from a backup standpoint you have a chance of winning games,” Holgorsen explained.
Following six grueling weeks of play, West Virginia will have two weeks to get some of its walking wounded healed, including Alston, who has been out with a deep thigh bruise since the James Madison game. On Sunday, Alston revealed on twitter that he plans on playing against TCU on Nov. 3, and that should help the offense if he does get clearance to go.
“I don’t know if he’s going to play or not,” said Holgorsen. “It’s going to take some practice time in order for him to earn some playing time back and show us that he’s able to do that. That is no different than anybody else on the team. He makes us better. He does a good job, brings maturity, brings toughness, and brings a physical style of play that we’re lacking a little bit in the run game. He would be good to get out there, but we have to make sure he can get through practice first.”
This week, Holgorsen said some of his coaches will spend part of their time out on the road recruiting.
“We’ve got some guys out (recruiting on Monday) locally seeing how we can’t get on an airplane because we’ve got to be back for practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “We will focus hard on fundamentals. We will try and heal some guys up and then put the ball down and play a little bit, especially with a bunch of young guys.
“Then we will have seven (coaches) out on Friday and Saturday all across the country trying to find some guys who can come in here and help us right away,” he said. “We will get back to work on a normal routine on Sunday getting ready for TCU.”
Meanwhile, Holgorsen will try and rebuild his team’s fragile state of mind.
“The mental aspect of reaching your team is always a challenge, but we’ve got to get their confidence back and the only way you can do that is by bringing them in and talking to them and getting them out there in practice and working on some specific things,” he said. “You’ve got to take them one at a time. We play in a good league and everybody understands that; we got off to kind of a hot start but we had some issues that a pretty good Texas Tech team and a real good Kansas State team exposed a little bit.”Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.