Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
Cause and effect: Nothing more accurately summarizes what football is all about. It’s true both mentally and physically; between the lines, and outside of them.
Every coach preaches the importance of guarding against highs and lows. They extoll the virtues of hitting the reset button each week and leaving the previous game behind.
NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells called this “the psychology of results.” How a team handles the aftermath of a game - regardless of the outcome – will play a critical role in determining how focused that team is, or isn’t, the next time they step onto the field.
And that’s what made West Virginia’s overtime win at Texas Christian last weekend so vital.
Yes it was critical because it snapped a three-game skid and represented the Mountaineers’ first road victory since knocking off Iowa State in Ames on Black Friday of last year – but even that understates how meaningful last Saturday’s win really was for Dana Holgorsen’s squad.
To truly appreciate just how big it was, you first have to consider the nature of West Virginia’s two most recent losses, the 37-27 setback against Texas Tech and the 35-12 meltdown at Kansas State that followed. In both games, West Virginia saw its lead evaporate in the final 18 minutes of play, breaking their spirit and testing their resolve.
Two blown leads in two straight games. Then the Mountaineers prepared to square off against TCU and in doing so they spent the week studying, among other things, yet another game that had slipped through their fingers – the heartbreaking 2012 loss to the Frogs.
Everywhere West Virginia turned, whether on the field or in the film room, it saw unfinished business. At some point, such teams run the risk of forming bad habits … of letting those demoralizing finishes linger and become part of how they think. A team can only withstand so many blown leads - so many squandered opportunities – before the adversity wins out and the tough losses grow attached to their identity like a barnacle to a listing ship. At some point, a team finds itself waiting for the other shoe to fall. At some point, they start to expect the worst.
That’s why the win at TCU last weekend wasn’t just a garden variety victory for West Virginia– if such a thing even exists in a league like the Big 12. It was much more than that. It was a tonic to cure the ills of a team lurching dangerously close to a belief that it couldn’t finish what it started.
Against the Frogs, West Virginia once again watched a late lead melt away as TCU climbed from a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes to force overtime. But this time, unlike in the losses to Texas Tech and K-State this year, and last year to the Frogs, West Virginia didn’t go gently into the night. This time, the Mountaineers flipped the script and found a way to exorcise their second-half demons and pull out the win.
In that sense, the victory in Fort Worth came in perhaps the most constructive form possible. West Virginia faced the exact shortcoming that had plagued it in recent weeks (an inability to hold a lead) and won despite of it.
Now, finally, they can take a deep breath and truly hit the reset button.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Marching into Morgantown in all its burnt orange glory is the larger-than-life brand known as the Texas Longhorns. Despite an ignominious 1-2 start that included a calamity against BYU (the Cougars rushed for 550 yards in a 40-21 rout of UT, resulting in the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz less than 24 hours later), the Horns have rebounded to rip off five straight league wins and assume their very familiar role as a Big 12 force to be reckoned with.
After Diaz was jettisoned following the Brigham Young debacle, the Longhorns tabbed Greg Robinson – longtime coach turned analyst - as his replacement.
The move has paid dividends. After a rough debut under Robinson that saw Texas surrender 27 unanswered points in a 44-23 loss to Ole Miss, the Horns have stabilized defensively. Robinson's crew is allowing just 18 points per game in Big 12 play and in five league contests they have forced 11 turnovers. On the backend, UT has permitted just 14 pass plays of 25-plus yards and only two FBS teams (Florida and UCF) have surrendered fewer touchdown tosses than the six yielded by the Longhorns. Those figures are a direct result of a deep crop of skilled cover corners and disruptive pass-rushing bookends (Cedric Reed and Jackson Jeffcoat) that have helped the Longhorns churn out 20 sacks through eight games.
Robinson’s game planning since taking over the Texas defense has been an interesting case study in how a coach's philosophy can evolve. Three decades ago, he spent the early, formative years of his career on Monte Kiffin's staff at NC State. As a Kiffin disciple, the influence of a somewhat conservative cover-two zone was for many years apparent in Robinson's defenses. This was particularly true of his Denver units that helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls in the late ‘90s. Through the years, Robinson added a consistent diet of four-deep zone coverage as well, particularly during his tenure at Michigan where he wasn't comfortable leaving the personnel in his defensive backfield exposed.
That's not been the case for Robinson at Texas this time around. Since he assumed the reins in September, the Horns have placed the burden of their scheme onto the shoulders of cornerbacks such as Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom, often asking them to cover independently in space as Texas commits bodies to the box to slow the opposition's ground game. The plan has worked to great effect. In the Horns’ first three games, they allowed more than 300 rushing yards per contest. In the five outings since, that figure has dropped to 126 per game.
The Longhorns are hitting their stride offensively as well, racking up 30-plus points in five consecutive games for the first time since 2009.
The good news for West Virginia?
Texas quarterback Case McCoy has been somewhat careless with the football in recent weeks, tossing four interceptions against a single touchdown in his last two games. A window of opportunity might be nudged open for a WVU defense that is on pace to force 30-plus turnovers for the first time since 2007.
The West Virginia offense will be asked to help keep pace. Promise comes in part from what WVU showed last week at TCU. With Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinksi leading the way, the West Virginia offensive line offered up its most physical performance of 2013, paving the road for Charles Sims (154 yards) to become the first runner ever to eclipse the 150-yard mark against a Gary Patterson-coached TCU team. Quarterback Clint Trickett, meanwhile, grew comfortable down the stretch, saving his best for last to complete 11 of his final 14 attempts for 124 and two scores against no interceptions after the end of the third quarter.
Think screens. Against an aggressive front seven, catching the Horns in a blitz with the second level evaporated on a slip screen to Sims or Dreamius Smith, or a perimeter screen to Kevin White, Mario Alford, etc. could result in exactly the kind of difference-making production West Virginia will need.
The Mountaineers will need all of that and more against a talented Texas squad still seeking its first-ever win over West Virginia. The possibilities are enticing. An upset win by the Mountaineers would make a statement, handing Texas its first Big 12 loss since 2012, and setting the stage for a WVU stretch run full of potential.
Will the Longhorns hook 'em Saturday night, or will the only Bull that matters be a celebratory can of Red Bull?
Far stranger things have happened on a cold night at Mountaineer Field.
I’ll see you at the fifty.
West Virginia University Mountaineers, Texas Longhorns, Big 12 Conference football
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