The best thing Coach Dana Holgorsen may have done for his football team last week was to send them home for the weekend.
There was more than enough time for them to work on fundamentals and all of the things that they needed to do to become a better football team. But in the long run, getting his players’ minds right might be the best prescription of all.
“We got them out of here for a few days and said, ‘Look, just be real guys, just get away from it and don’t worry about the daily grind of being a college football player,’” Holgorsen said Wednesday afternoon on his weekly United Bank Playbook web show.
Junior linebacker Doug Rigg
heeded his coach’s advice and went back to New Jersey to watch his old high school football team play last weekend.
“In the beginning, it was real fun when you see you are beating teams real bad, but then when you start struggling and you see what people are saying about you and seeing people write you off, it becomes, ‘Hey, if we don’t win this is what people are going to say about us,’” Rigg said. “I think we just need to get back to playing and having fun and playing for each other, rather than trying to please everybody else.”
Teammate Jared Barber
admitted that the back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State were really starting to wear on him.
“I’m very competitive and I’ve been that way from an early age,” Barber said. “It’s taken a toll on me because I don’t like losing at all. It makes you work harder – step back and look in the mirror and see what I’m doing wrong and try and fix things.”
Considering the way the team has played the last two games, there are plenty of things that require fixing. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said a lot of time was spent getting his guys lined up properly, communicating properly and using the correct techniques and fundamentals.
“I thought it was a great time for us as a defense to go back and say, ‘Hey, start from the fundamental level: alignment, assignment, technique and your initial foot movement,’” he said. “Because we have had so many moving parts (injured players and freshmen being forced to replace them) they have forgotten that. That is something we have to do better as coaches to get them to focus on that.”
Barber admits that the Big 12 is a much different league than what the Mountaineers were going up against in the Big East on a weekly basis.
“I think (the Big 12 teams) are more powerful. Up front, they are more athletic in the Big 12,” he said. “The Big East has great offensive lines and great teams, but the Big 12 is just more athletically gifted.”
In the Big East, especially once Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left in 2004, there were always some teams on the schedule that West Virginia knew it was going to beat. Sometimes, the Mountaineers could get by against those teams even when they weren’t at their best. In the Big 12, however, teams not at their best get exposed. That’s just a simple fact of life now. Barber noted that teams need far more than just their top 11 players on both sides of the ball to get through this league.
“The size, athletic ability and the speed of the Big 12, it takes a toll on your body and throughout the season you need depth, for sure,” he said.
And that’s why having a weekend off was so important for a football team that is still finding its way around the league. You could tell legs were dragging and play on both sides of the ball was not as sharp and crisp in West Virginia’s last two games against Texas Tech and Kansas State.
“We had a weekend off and not playing a game made a huge difference for our legs,” Rigg admitted. “Seeing people (on Tuesday), guys were flying around much more than usual. Even though it was a tough week of practice, having that weekend off was huge for getting people healthy.”
Barber has also detected a significant spike in effort and enthusiasm this week.
“I came in and my legs were fresh,” he said. “I felt better running around. We were getting pretty worn down after the Kansas State game, but I think everybody is good to go now and we were flying around in practice.”
Now, the key is transferring all of that positive energy to the football field this weekend against TCU.
“I think we are a better team because of what happened,” DeForest said. “I can’t wait to play because I think our kids are ready and our coaches are ready. If we can get them to go out there and play with energy, emotion and enthusiasm then we can get them back to where they were.”
Perhaps even more importantly, DeForest wants his guys to start having fun again. After all, he points out (quite correctly) that football is still just a game.
“We want them to go out and enjoy playing the game,” DeForest said. “Sometimes we as coaches forget that and players sometimes, because it’s such a grind, forget that, but you want them to still have fun playing the game.”
Of course, the easiest way to have fun is by having some success – something that has obviously been lacking on both sides of the ball lately.
“I think the most fun I ever had was playing against Clemson last year – just playing harder than the other team and seeing the other team quit playing hard and having fun – I think that’s the best part,” said Rigg. “If you’re not playing hard and losing it’s just terrible being out there.”
“Our mentality is good and our body language is good,” added Holgorsen. “Our confidence is back up, and our players are excited about playing. We want to practice hard this week and be excited about playing a football game to the best of our abilities.”
If that happens this Saturday against TCU, then everyone will be happy.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.