Both might have been expected, given the Mountaineers' season-long woes in the area of discussion. But coming on back-to-back nights in the midst of the holiday season, they stood out more than at any time this year. Pick your adjective: hideous, brutal, cover-your-eyes awful. All serve to describe, but don't fully illuminate, WVU's offensive showings in losses to N.C. State and St. John's on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The numbers are bad enough. On the gridiron, West Virginia did manage to gain 361 yards, which was just 11 yards short of its season-long average of 372. But those numbers are misleading, as the gains produced nearly as many turnovers (five) as points (seven) in what some would view as a fitting and merciful end to the 2010 season. The Mountaineers ran the ball just 25 times and got its power backs just two carries against a Wolfpack pass rush that barely checked the run, despite gaining 5.2 yards per carry. The Mountaineer managed just 64 plays, including about ten of the head-scratching variety, and never seriously threatened N.C. State in a game that wasn't as close as the final 23-7 score indicated.
Even when WVU could move the ball, it ended up shooting itself in the foot – another recurring theme in the 2010 season. West Virginia managed three drives of more than seven plays in the game, with two of them ending in missed field goals. Stedman Bailey's leaping touchdown grab capped the third, but other than that it was the same old story for the Mountaineers. Drives sputtered out with punts in the first half and five turnovers in the second half, giving N.C. State extra chances that WVU could ill-afford. That the Pack finished with just 23 points is a credit to WVU's defense, which, after returning to a more vanilla schemes following two long first-half drives, held the Pack to field goals until a final; point blank score from seven yards away in the final minutes of the game.
The next night, fans filed into the WVU Coliseum hoping for a bit of an antidote to the ugliness of the Champs Sports Bowl, but instead were treated to more of the same. Bob Huggins' squad continued to treat offense as an afterthought, as it repeated the mistakes it has committed all season in an 81-71 loss to St. John's. The Mountaineers failed to pass the ball, and insisted on holding it on the perimeter. They didn't give accurate feeds to post players who, at times, established good position in the lane that should have led to scoring tries. They chose to launch more 3-pointers (36) than shots from inside the arc (30). And they clanked them with monotonous regularity, making just 37.9% from the field while yielding a Globetrotter-like 61% shooting mark to the Red Storm.
That the basketball Mountaineers scored 71 points is something of a miracle. They got to the free throw line just 11 times, and only 13 threes kept them within shouting distance of the visitors, who demonstrated the benefits of actually running the plays and sets called by their coaches. St. John's took just six shots from distance, and scored an incredible 40 points in the lane while converting 30 of 39 free throw chances.
The pair of losses was the ugliest in close proximity since this time last year, when the football team demonstrated more dubious play-calling in the Gator Bowl loss to Florida State while the hoops squad was getting blown out at Purdue. In those games, at least, there was some offensive production, but in this duo, scoring was as difficult as getting a straight answer from a politician.
Many observers have wondered, over the course of the year, what the offensive identity of West Virginia's football team was. The answer, we should have said, is "struggling". That's now the same label that can be applied on the basketball side of the house, and the question is how to fix it. That's where the paths diverge in this tale of similarities.
In football, the white knight has been identified. It's Dana Holgorsen, who may find the offense he inherits more bare than Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard when he takes the reins of the offense shortly. He'll get wide receivers who ran many routes shorter than their own height, an offensive line that was inconsistent at best and overwhelmed at worst, and a quarterback with a history of foot woes approaching that of Bill Walton. You have to wonder what Holgorsen thought watching WVU's performance, and if he had any idea what he was getting himself into. Whether or not he can mold something productive from this group is still to be seen, but the bet here is that it isn't going to be an easy, or short, process.
On the basketball court, it's a different issue. Huggins has proved that he knows how to win games. His teams – at least those that listen to him and try to execute his designs, are usually successful. Even with a squad that is about as athletic as some of John Beilein's WVU teams, Huggins hoped to be able to build success with a strong inside game and typically solid defense. That hasn't happened, mostly because the hard work and commitment to making it work hasn't been evident. WVU certainly isn't as talented as it was a year ago, and no reasonable-thinking observer would have put the Mountaineers up for a Final Four run again this season. But no one would have predicted that one year later, players would discount the teachings of a coach that should one day be in the Hall of Fame, and instead choose to dribble out the shot clock, pass the ball poorly, and generally treat offense in the manner of a high school AAU team.
Will solutions be forthcoming? As Huggins said, in one of the most dispirited interview sessions of his WVU career, "I don't know. I'm not clairvoyant." Holgorsen, facing a rebuilding project of epic proportions, might well say the same thing once he arrives.