Late Season Swoon No Longer An Aberration

It’s become a pattern, this late season, bottom-of-the-barrel flameout that will plague West Virginia for a third consecutive year.

Since the Orange Bowl victory in head coach Dana Holgorsen’s initial season in 2011, WVU went 2-6 to end the 2012 season, 1-6 to end last season and is now on a three-game losing streak after a 26-20 defeat at the hands of No. 12 Kansas State. That’s a 3-15 collective mark, the wins coming against Kansas, Iowa State and TCU. This most recent implosion has played out much like the previous two. West Virginia, with a respectable, perhaps even above average, start, drops a key game, loses its psychological edge and begins the slow, agonizing descension into yet another losing Big 12 record.

And just when one thought it couldn’t possibly happen again, that West Virginia was at 6-2 overall, sitting pretty in the top 20 nationally and in second place in the Big 12 with a 4-1 record, TCU pulls the last-second gutwrencher, Texas serves as the latest reincarnation of the subconscious brute and K-State finishes the job while West Virginia again wallows in the shame of a subpar performance rife with self-inflicted miscues. Consider, too, that West Virginia was the favorite in two of those three games. We’ve all seen this story before; it’s nothing new. The major question is when does it stop?

Can Iowa State serve as the ailment, similar to what Kansas was, the valve stem to stop the bleeding and get WVU to a bowl in Holgorsen’s second season? The Cyclones have to look up to see mediocrity, but right now the Mountaineers seem so buried in their own despondency to recover that they themselves might not see any light. What, really, is there left for which to play? Beat Iowa State or not, the Mountaineers, at 7-5 or 6-6, are nearly a lock for the Liberty Bowl, where they could play a Tennessee team who hasn’t been to a bowl in three years, and hasn’t won one since 2008. Or a currently 5-5 South Carolina team who will gain bowl eligibility after its game against South Alabama this weekend. Guess which conference’s team will be more excited to be there?

And don’t dig up the play-for-pride argument. That went out the proverbial door against Texas, when the Longhorns forced WVU to swallow its own, and the bitter pill that followed in the 33-16 loss. In fact, it’s more than a pattern now. It’s a team characteristic. It’s in the very make-up of the Mountaineers. Once West Virginia takes a significant body blow, it’s on the canvas the remainder of the season. There is no recovery, no rebound, no bounce to the step. In the last weeks, it’s eight, nine, 10…knockout.

Sure, we can talk about playing top 20 opponents closely. And that’s great. But of the five top 20 teams West Virginia has played this season, four of the games were at home, one was at a neutral site, none were on the road. And the Mountaineers went a whopping 1-4. That’s not protecting home field. WVU, in fact, might not even have much, if any, home field advantage any more. It’s just 10-9 in Milan Puskar over the last three seasons, including a 6-9 mark against Power Five teams. That means 40 percent of the wins came against Towson, William and Mary, Georgia State and Marshall.

The Kansas State loss was essentially sealed at halftime, the Wildcats advancing its winning streak to 46 straight when it leads at halftime. West Virginia’s problems were the same ones that hurt it in 2012, ’13 and again this season. The quarterback play goes south, be it a pro level talent like Geno Smith or a typically solid college signal caller like Clint Trickett. There are special teams breakdowns. The offensive line knuckles under. It’s all been done, and it’s become laughably predictable. Until this program can achieve as much, perhaps it’s time to eliminate the Rocky speech, the one played ad nauseam over the video board where Balboa proclaims that “it’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Indeed it is. And that’s why West Virginia isn’t doing it.

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