MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller
Last season it was the Orange Bowl; this season it’s simply the Orange.
On Dec. 29 the Mountaineers will face Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in the third edition of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. In the arithmetic of the Big 12 Conference, that’s where an equation of 5–5+2 lands you.
After a white hot September that bled into a big win over the burnt orange in early October, West Virginia bolted to a Top 5 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls. A thrilling victory over the unbeaten Longhorns in front of a record crowd at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin capped off a 5-0 start that had the Big 12 – and the entire nation – buzzing over the Mountaineers. West Virginia was the toast of its new league and Geno Smith
, the team’s ubiquitous, touchdown-tossing triggerman, was drawing props from outlets as unrelated as The New York Times and LeBron James’ Twitter account.
Through those first five games, Stedman Bailey
and Tavon Austin
had combined for an inconceivable 21 scoring grabs and both were ranked in the top three in the country in catches and receiving yardage. Smith, meanwhile, had completed 81 percent of his throws for 24 touchdowns without tossing a single interception while guiding a WVU offense that was averaging 52 points per outing.
With Andrew Buie
gashing the Longhorns for 207 yards rushing to help West Virginia rediscover its balance, many felt the Mountaineer offense was approaching an unstoppable midseason form. Despite a young defense with obvious limitations, West Virginia had survived test after test and the stage was set - or so it seemed from the outside looking in – for an epic run into history.
Instead, what the Mountaineers ran into was a brick wall.
With its unblemished record on the line once again, West Virginia marched into Lubbock and took 4-1 Texas Tech’s best shot. That shot came in the form of a one-sided demolition. The Red Raiders entered the game with the nation’s No. 2-ranked defense and looked every bit the part against the beleaguered Mountaineers, jumping out to a 35-7 halftime lead en route to a decisive 49-14 outcome that sent WVU plummeting out of the top 10.
West Virginia hoped to right the ship in time to fend off fourth-ranked Kansas State in Morgantown a week later. That didn’t happen. The unbeaten Wildcats jumped on the Gold and Blue early and often, outgaining the Mountaineers 346-to-74 in the first half on their way to a 31-7 advantage at the break. Bill Snyder’s crew never looked back and cruised to a lop-sided 55-14 win that saw K-State’s Collin Klein (seven total TDs in the game) supplant Geno Smith
as the new Heisman frontrunner du jour.
Despite stumbling into the business end of two heavy-handed thrashings, the 5-2 Mountaineers were still ranked in both polls as they prepared for a pivotal showdown with fellow Big 12 newbie Texas Christian. A heartbreaking double-overtime loss to the Horned Frogs, followed by a 55-34 setback in Stillwater (triggered by a hat trick of special teams gaffes) had the Mountaineers backed into a 5-4 corner with 12th-ranked Oklahoma coming to town.
In a Big 12 duel worthy of the time capsule, a crowd of 50,238 saw Landry Jones throw for 554 yards while Tavon Austin
exploded out of the West Virginia backfield like a human turbo. In one of the greatest individual performances in college football history, Austin sliced and diced the startled Sooners for 344 yards on the ground. The total not only represented a WVU school record, but also served as the most yards ever gained by an OU opponent. In the end, however, Austin (572 all-purpose yards), Smith (four TD tosses) and Bailey (205 receiving yards and four TD grabs) fell one bullet short as Jones fired his sixth scoring strike of the night to lift the Sooners to a 50-49 win with only seconds remaining.
Five straight losses for the first time since 1986 – all in conference play, no less – left West Virginia reeling. But with bowl eligibility and program pride still on the line, the Mountaineers bounced back up off the canvas in time to answer a demanding challenge on the road at Iowa State. West Virginia overcame two fourth quarter deficits, and the blistering winds of Jack Trice Stadium, to slip away with a 31-24 victory. A week later, WVU closed things out by handing Kansas its worst defeat of the season – a 59-10 decision in which Smith was nearly picture perfect, connecting on 23-of-24 pass attempts for 407 yards to tie an NCAA single game record for completion percentage (95.8%).
West Virginia’s maiden voyage into the Big 12 - a season preceded by immense fanfare – saw its peaks and its valleys before the Mountaineers skidded into the finish line with record of seven up and five down.
The regular season is now over but a bowl game and a few tempting questions remain. Those which prod at the imagination:
a.) Is West Virginia a better football team than its 7-5 record suggests?
b.) Is it not quite as good as the 7 wins imply?
Or, how about option “c” – neither?
As Bill Parcells once remarked, “You are what your record says you are.”
What a bold notion in this age of “could haves” and “should haves.”
Imagine that. You are what you are.
West Virginia has won close this year. It’s won big. It’s lost close and – yes – it’s lost big, too.
With the good necessarily comes the bad. That’s the nature of the game. The fate of a football season often turns on a handful of key plays. If coaches could cherry pick those pivotal moments and alter them in their favor, rest assured there would be far more teams with 10+ wins each year.
It’s that line of thinking that fosters a spirited game of “what if?” But remember that those “ifs” can cut both ways.
For instance, here are a few things from the enticing side of the ledger:
- What if Landry Jones’ fourth and goal pass to Kenny Stills with 24 seconds remaining had sailed incomplete? Imagine the impact a 49-44 win over Oklahoma could have had for West Virginia.
- What if the WVU defense - which at that juncture had allowed just 157 passing yards and had forced seven three and outs – managed to register one final stop when TCU got the ball back deep in its own territory with 2:07 remaining in a 31-24 game?
- What if the West Virginia offense, with possession of the football in Oklahoma State territory to start the fourth quarter, had managed to finish off the drive and tie the game at 41? Might that have provided enough momentum to help WVU win a shootout in Stillwater?
And here are a few from the darker end of the speculation gamut. The kind that bring you back to reality:
- What if Darwin Cook
– with a vigorous Black Friday crowd building steam in Ames - didn’t force a Jeff Wood fumble at the five-yard line late in the fourth quarter with Iowa State poised to tie the game? Might the Cyclones have forced overtime and scrapped out a win?
- What if the Longhorns, after recovering a fumble at the West Virginia 12-yard line with 7:37 remaining in a three-point game, hadn’t squandered their scoring opportunity with an errant snap by center Dominic Espinoza? Might Texas have recaptured the lead and ignited the crowd one final time?
- What if West Virginia – with Baylor hot on its heels and answering score for score in the fourth quarter – didn’t convert a pair of third and longs to ultimately extend its lead back to 14 points with six minutes left on Stedman Bailey
fifth touchdown of the afternoon? Might the Bears have gotten the ball back and forced overtime? That’s a potentially scary proposition.
The hits, the misses, the lucky hops and the ill-fated bounces … The great plays West Virginia made and the simple plays it didn’t. Throw it all into a cauldron, bring it to a boil and stir briskly and you get a 7-5 football team.
A good team.
Sometimes even a really good team, but certainly not a great one.
Good teams like West Virginia find a way to persevere and salvage a bowl berth even when a rugged schedule knocks a season onto the brink of collapse. But great teams find a way to stop the bleeding long before it hits five games. Really good teams like the Mountaineers win consecutive games over ranked opponents (Baylor and Texas, for instance). But great teams don’t score 34+ points in three straight games and drop all three (see: losses to TCU, OSU and Oklahoma). Good teams like WVU overcome fourth quarter deficits to win in places like Austin and Ames. But great teams don’t blow three fourth quarter leads in three weeks (one against TCU, two against OU) to lose games.
In the end, Mountaineer Nation is left to contemplate an up-and-down season that was juxtaposed by a record breaking offense (historically good at times) and a struggling, young defense (historically bad at times).
With still one contest to play, West Virginia has already established a program record for total yards gained (6,222) and stands just 17 points away from setting a school mark for scoring. Geno Smith
has obliterated the school record for touchdown passes in a season with 40, while Stedman Bailey
has nearly doubled the mark for touchdown catches with 23, and both Bailey and Tavon Austin
have already eclipsed the single season reception record of 101.
Defensively, with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl still remaining, the Mountaineers have established a few records of the gloomy variety by allowing more yards (5,635) and more points (457) than any unit in school history.
In short, preseason hype notwithstanding, at 7-5 West Virginia is probably right around where it should be after its inaugural journey through the Big 12.
Like many pundits, I forecasted a brighter year for the Mountaineers. This was the Big 12 season, I boldly surmised, that WVU might get a few bounces go its way and win 10 games. My reasoning was sensible, or so I believed. In a league where offense rules the day, West Virginia had more dynamic pieces in place than any other team in the conference.
I admitted last summer that the Mountaineers’ future as a Big 12 member might prove difficult as WVU would soon be forced to reload, but the present day looked fine. My logic was simple, but flawed. Heading into the fall, West Virginia had the perfect blend of playmakers in the perfect spots for the perfect league, I thought, to make that big first impression by pushing for – and perhaps even claiming – its initial Big 12 title.
I was wrong.
The fact that WVU failed to meet my lofty preseason expectations says more about my shortcomings as an overzealous analyst than it does about the Mountaineers’ deficiencies as a team.
I overestimated West Virginia’s strengths and I underestimated its weaknesses.
Perhaps my biggest folly, however, was underestimating the grind of the Big 12 itself and the debilitating impact it could have on a team in need of depth.
Fifteen programs at the FBS level finished the regular season with a 7-5 record this year. Two of them have lower ranked defenses than the Mountaineers and three of them have higher ranked offenses, and five of the 15 7-5 teams dotting the college football landscape hail from the Big 12, constituting half of the entire conference. That’s a strong indicator that West Virginia’s new league is among the most competitive in the nation.
Another school that finished with seven wins hails from western New York and the Mountaineers will tee it up against them in a few weeks in a battle for win number eight.
More on that one later.
Until then, I’ll see you at the fifty.