Missed opportunities again cost West Virginia in loss at No. 2 Baylor

WACO, Texas – The chances were there again. And again, the execution – especially in the red zone – on a handful of plays kept West Virginia out of prime position to slay the giant.

Sure, the 62-38 final score flatly read that No. 2 Baylor ran WVU out of the stadium, and for the latter portions of the third quarter, then a meaningless stop-the-fight fourth, that was true. But for all the issues, the Mountaineers remained in the game, and indeed a position to challenge for the win, until it again helped beat itself.

"Not good enough to get a victory," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They are the No. 2 team in the country and that's the bestBbaylor team that I have seen ever. They are a good team."

The last legit blow, one that actually meant something, came on Adam Pankey’s false start on fourth down and one from the BU 43-yard line with the Bears leading 41-24 late in the third quarter. That turned a makeable fourth down into a fourth and six, and led to another improbable long shot deep, which fell incomplete, turned the ball over on downs, and eventually snowballed into another Baylor score to seal the game before the last quarter began.

But that was just that last of many self-inflicted mistakes. One possession before, on Baylor’s first series of the third quarter, the Mountaineer defense had a fourth and three set-up at their own 37 yard line. But wideout Corey Coleman again beat a former reserve – this time Ricky Rumph – on a slant for a 33-yard touchdown to put Baylor ahead 34-17 and signal the start of the end. It was just one of a string of impressive plays by Coleman, who finished with 10 catches for 199 yards to torch the WVU secondary.

Even with Tony Gibson’s defense giving up the 68 points and 693 yards, the offense has to shoulder more than simply Pankey’s false start. The most egregious of issues came late in the second quarter when, despite moving the ball into Baylor’s red zone on both of its final two drives in the first half, the Mountaineers were forced to settle for just three points total, leaving it down 27-17 when it could have been within a possession, and perhaps in the best of circumstances held a lead. The two series played out much as one would expect based upon previous evidence.

On the penultimate possession, Skyler Howard hit Jordan Thompson for 47 yards to move the ball to the BU three-yard line. WVU then ran up the middle three times from there. It wasn’t a bad series in itself, but the line gained no push on a pair of Howard keepers after a three-foot Donte Thomas-Williams run. Howard was stonewalled, and though some could question the legitimacy of three consecutive runs after the bootleg was successful in previous drives, the issue there was more execution than Xs and Os.

West Virginia settled for three from Josh Lambert to get within a score at 24-17, then kept Baylor out of the end zone on the next possession to remain within 10 points after Chris Callahan’s field goal. At this point, WVU was very much in the game after Wendell Smallwood ripped off a 52-yard run up the middle, getting tackled from behind at the 10-yard line to set-up with first and goal. But again, the same miscues hurt WVU. First, Rushel Shell’s one-yard rush segued into the bootleg for Howard, who couldn’t find Elijah Wellman in the flats. What’s worse, the line was called for a combination chop block that cost 15 yards and field position.

That took West Virginia from third and goal at the nine to second and goal at the 24. An incompletion and a scrambling six-yard gain by Howard amounted to nothing more than a fourth and goal from the 18, and Lambert pushed the 35-yard field goal wide right. Instead of a one possession game at worst, the Mountaineers remained down 27-17. It’s a shame, really, that Smallwood’s ankle was among the reasons, at least on the last drive, that WVU wasn’t within three at the break.

"Second quarter, I thought the two red zone opportunities we had offensively needed to result in points," Holgorsen said. "That would have put us at 27-27 at halftime. That was tough. After that, you can only hold them down for so long. They are going to win a lot of ballgames."

Think what could have been with another seven points on the board, and just a field goal spread at the half as the nation’s second-ranked team suddenly faced a lively WVU offense to start the third quarter. It seems almost a theme of the season, the almost-made plays, the penalties, the lack of execution at key times, the what-could-have-beens against a series of top 20 opponents. It’s nothing all the time and many things portions of the time.

The line showed some flashes of protection and run blocking. Howard indeed was more decisive and delivered the ball with a bit more gumption. But the quarterback also took an ill-advised shot deep that was intercepted, and again missed basic check down throws. The defense struggled with deep throws on press coverage and slants when the corners backed off. There was at least one breakdown in communication in the secondary. But this was against a highly explosive offense that perhaps no team will slow this season. It was, in other words, exactly the opportunistic, havoc-creating match-up all expected against the Bears.

It’s part better players, part superior execution and part injuries to the Mountaineers. But it remains that there were chances, and yet once again a talented opponent made more than their share, while West Virginia tried to make more with less.

The result? An 0-3 start for the first time in WVU’s brief history of Big 12 play, and a three-game skid to match the 3-0 start. The wins weren’t against remotely respectable teams, the losses against quite good to arguably great teams. So where are these Mountaineers? The thought here is that West Virginia is still a mid-tier Big 12 team which simply got tagged with the most difficult October slate in college football this season and ever in the history of WVU's program.

Here’s the thing, and it might be nothing more than a search for the silver lining in the playbook: If the Mountaineers, with an upcoming off week, can get all the funk out of their system, the displeasure with itself, and reset the season, it can spring an upset at TCU and be right back on track at 4-3 with consecutive home games to play. There's ytalent here, and the players seemed to understand the final score again shouuldn't have been quite what it was. It’s been written here multiple times that this program is close, and it remains close. But the ante needs upped from getting close to finishing.

If it can regain composure – West Virginia didn’t play poorly against the Bears, and showed itself capable multiple times over versus the Sooner State twins – it can get the needed road win and be back on track for a solid eight-win season. If it knuckles under now, and drags itself across the October finish line without a fight, the die could be cast.

 


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