- By John Antonik
- December 29, 2010 06:20 PM
ORLANDO, Fla. – West Virginia’s disappointing performance in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl will undoubtedly stick with the team’s 20 seniors for a long, long time, but eventually, those painful memories will fade away.
NC State has a solid football team and produced a fine season in the ACC this year, but this was also the same team that lost to East Carolina and a Maryland squad that West Virginia manhandled earlier this season in Morgantown.
The disappointment and dejection could be seen in many of the players’ eyes as they slumbered out of the locker room toward the team busses. Senior linebacker J.T. Thomas was briefly diverted from his slow walk toward his future to spend a few minutes with reporters for one final time. Thomas’ eyes were still red and moist.
“It just wasn’t quite good enough today,” he said. “I saw a little rust on the defense with some things not being able to take game reps. Other than that, we were just a little bit short tonight. We could have been a little bit better.”
The obvious thing that stands out in this game is the five turnovers committed by the Mountaineers. The final turnover count is 14 in West Virginia’s four losses this season (something new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen will certainly address when he begins in January). Two missed field goals and a long kickoff return were also detrimental to the cause.
“When you think about the game with two great defenses it comes down to other things. It comes down to the kicking game, special teams, and it comes down to turnovers,” senior safety Sidney Glover explained. “I guess the ball bounced their way. They got a few and we didn’t.”
The defense had chances to make plays, too, and it didn’t seem to play with its usual swagger - perhaps because three contributors, including top corner Brandon Hogan, were not in uniform. Glover says that shouldn’t matter. The next guy in line has to step up.
“Like I told them, we don’t expect to miss a beat when we’re out there,” he explained. “We put a lot of faith in the backups that work year round with us. They take good reps so we expect them to be ready.”
Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson was tremendous and many of the Mountaineer players admitted afterward that he was probably the best individual talent they faced this year. There were times when it looked like he was hemmed in along the sideline when all of a sudden he made a quick move away from pressure to complete a pass to an open receiver down field.
Wilson completed 28 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, and he likely could have had four or five more completions if not for dropped passes. He also ran 14 times for 41 yards, getting critical third down yardage at least three times to keep drives alive.
Wilson’s MVP award was much deserved, but in reality, it was the NC State defense - particularly the Wolfpack front seven - that was the difference in the football game. West Virginia felt like there were opportunities in the secondary if enough time could be bought for quarterback Geno Smith. But in order to get the time Smith needed to attack State’s corners and safeties the Mountaineers often had to utilize max protection, the tradeoff being fewer receivers available to catch passes.
Even when he wasn’t hit, Smith was under constant pressure, sometimes sailing passes he normally completes either high or wide of their mark. West Virginia even tried to take some shots downfield, once trying a fake reverse pass to Brad Starks that was flagged for pass interference, but the Mountaineers couldn’t loosen up the defense enough to take the pressure off of Smith. And eventually, that pressure led to critical mistakes that turned the game in NC State’s favor.
Of course, all of that is still fresh on the seniors’ minds right now.
“Individually, I felt like I could have done a lot better but good or bad about me, I just wish we could have won but we didn’t,” said Glover.
Despite the disappointing performance, Thomas said he felt obligated to stay out on the field afterward and congratulate the Wolfpack on their victory.
“You want to try and keep your composure as much as possible - show some sportsmanship and show a little bit of class about the whole situation, not hang your head and seem like a sore loser,” he said. “It hurts. Anytime you are passionate about something and you put a lot of time into something it’s going to hurt when you don’t go out the way you want to.”
As a son of a former Mountaineer player, Thomas understands the proud history of West Virginia football and the traditions that are so meaningful to the players and fans. He would never do anything to denigrate that great history.
“People don’t have any idea how much our fans support us and our program and what they do for us – just everything about this place,” he said. “You think about it and you say, man, I’m going to miss it.”
Thomas says when his head finally clears his memory bank will be stored with nothing but good memories.
“There have been a lot more good times than bad times,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of 9-win seasons and that’s more than a lot of programs win - being able to sing the fight song after the game and all of the things that come along with being a Mountaineer week in and week out …”
Glover, too, will eventually overcome the disappointment of this loss.
“I don’t think you can define us or look at us just on this one game,” he said. “Things just didn’t go our way this time.”