The reasons are easy to identify. From a pure mathematical standpoint, a win over Iowa State guarantees not only a winning regular season, but an overall winning season as well, regardless of bowl results. It also locks in a 5-4 Big 12 finish rather than 4-5, which would mark the first time the Mountaineers have had an above-.500 conference record since joining the league. The psychological boost would likely steady the trajectory heading into the bowl game, and give WVU a shot of enthusiasm over the month of preparation.
Lose, and all that is extinguished, as well as much of any enthusiasm for the bowl. If the coaching job seems difficult at this point, with errors galore and no particular consistency save the punt return on where to focus the fix, a defeat in Ames would be as big an end-season deflator as West Virginia has faced in years. Lose to Iowa State, which would be the Cyclones first Big 12 win since, you guessed it, they defeated WVU to end last season, and the pulse rate of this team would match that of the 2012 Pinstripe version, when the 23 degree temperatures were every bit exceeded by an even colder overall team approach.
“They are a lot like K-State and TCU,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “It’s a defense where they are going to line up and play hard. We just have to take care of the ball. That’s probably true very game, and it sounds like a broken record, but you can go back through every game and pinpoint exactly when things went wrong, and it’s typically stupid stuff. I was just in there talking to Gibby, aand I told him I have never seen a group – and I understand getting hit on the ball, because that happens – but my brother’s eight-year old can turn around and hand to his other five-year old son. And (WVU ) not being able to execute that (against KSU), I will go to my grave with zero answer for that.”
All the above, and quite a bit more, including a nice quarterback scramble this week in practice, is why this week is once again about West Virginia itself. One can try and turn to potential matchups, to a particular position or individual battle, but the inconsistency of the Mountaineers, combined with the absolute fact that WVU has more talent and should win the game, makes self-examination a bit more insightful. It might show more to watch WVU’s effort, see how it is responding to the last challenge of the season, and a clichéd current biggest one. Is the play crisp, tackling solid? Have the Mountaineers backed and bought into whoever emerges as the quarterback?
If it’s Clint Trickett, does he appear fully recovered mentally, as head coach Dana Holgorsen noted he would have to be to play? Is he still forcing passes into double coverage or opposed to taking the check down, something preached especially hard before the game against Kansas State –the very definition of a defense that forces patience – but quickly ignored by Trickett once the contest began. How’s the zip on the passes, which has been somewhat lacking over the last few games. If, indeed, Skyler Howard gets the nod, how is the sophomore approaching his initial major collegiate start?
Does he appear confident? If there any hesitation, or do the nerves, unlike the quick change situation against KSU allowed to build in the run-up, too much? Is Howard taking what is there, or forcing the action downfield? Does he keep his eyes downfield, or resort to the less seasoned, more panicky version fans saw over the spring? And what of the team? Does there seem to be more bounce with one or the other behind center? A judgment based upon Howard getting the start could be in error, as West Virginia has managed every gamut of starting speed and style this season.
“He has an ability to extend some plays and whenever protection broke down a little bit he slipped out and made plays,” Dawson said. “It doesn’t take but a guy making a couple plays to shoot some energy to the whole group. He went out there and made a couple throws and made a couple plays. First drive we (with Howard) we went down there and scored and we needed that. It gave us some life.
“(Clint) missed some throws early, some throws down the field he should have come off of. He should have come off his first read three or four times. Some of the things that happened weren’t his fault. Not that he played outstanding. He graded out about average. It has to do with his protection. At times (the pressure) is legitimate, at times it’s ghosts.”
There’s also the other side of the ball. Does the defense continue to swarm, and contain he run, or has it, too, become weary and wary of an offense and special teams that has often left it in less than prime position? There’s typically a breaking point during the season, and West Virginia has likely pushed itself up against it via three consecutive losses with all manner of errors on all three sides. If the Mountaineers do trail early, does the entire roster have the collective gumption to keep playing, or is a 6-6 finish and the final domino in the collapse then become the foregone conclusion?
“The one thing I was disappointed in early in the (KSU) game is when some tings stared to happen and our kids dropped their heads a little bit,” Gibson said. “Let’s just do make another play. That was the message when we threw the pick before halftime, and I said just strain as hard as you can strain and let’s go make a play. Did we give up some stuff? Yeah, we did. But the button line is points? We gave up 16 points. Where we are right now from where we were a year ago? Who knows what the score could have been?
“They play hard and they are gritty and they are nasty and they play hard,” Gibson added. “Two goal line stands? Both are the two yard line? I haven’t been around too many of those. That’s hard to do. I’m happy with where we are at. Would I like to be sitting here 11-0? Oh, yeah. Have we played bad at times? Yeah. But where we are at right now, I can’t say enough about those kids. I love coaching them, love everything about them.”
This is arguably the biggest late regular season game for a Mountaineer team flirting with .500 in quite a while. One would likely have to go back to 2000 and Hall of Fame head coach Don Nehlen’s last career home contest against East Carolina for such a key catalyst for end-of-season satisfaction between a pair of teams who have combined for anything resembling eight wins and 13 losses. Because it reads here this game has more pure team importance with less national implication than even the Kansas finale in 2012. Sure, the 2011 regular season ending was key to a BCS game; the 2007 ending was key to the national title game. Those are givens. But when one talks program importance against what is viewed largely as a throwaway game, both nationally and within the conference, this Iowa State clash is paramount for West Virginia. It could, after all, well make or break the bowl game effort, which could make or break the entire offseason. Perhaps, to paraphrase British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, never has so much relied on so little.
“I think there is a lot of pressure (on the Iowa State outcome). We are out here to win games, and obviously a lot of people are affected if we win or lose,” WVU center Tyler Orlosky said. “Big 12, we haven’t been over .500. That’s bit, and finishing the season above .500 is big, too. It’s very important we get a win. People can say what they want, say that it’s Iowa State, but our season up until now depends upon this Iowa State game. If we win we have a lot of momentum going into the bowl. If we lose the game, that’s a lot to take. Four straight losses would be detrimental to our team.”