As the team walked down the stadium steps and on to the field, there weren't any loud cries or raised voices. Players greeted each other and huddled together at mid-field for a few words from team leaders. There wasn't blustery talk, or braggadocio, or promises of mayhem to come. There was the confidence of a winning team, but it wasn't over the line. There was anticipation, but no anxiety. Pride, but no demeaning comments. It was, in sum, very encouraging. The frame of mind couldn't have been better.
All of that dissolved in less than two hours, when Oklahoma resorted to WWE tactics and trash talk worthy of Connor MacGregor. WVU, a team that has handled difficult situations all year with aplomb, had a mental meltdown. Responding to OU's taunts and dancing on that same logo where they had looked so good just a short time before, the Mountaineers went completely off script. They became more concerned with “defending their turf” than they did with playing on it. And as a result, they fell into a hole from which they could not recover.
The bigger problem with this, though, was that it was at least tacitly approved by some members of the coaching staff. How far that approval went, or whether it had been talked about in the run-up to the game, is unclear, but head coach Dana Holgorsen said that he approved of West Virginia standing up for itself. That was echoed by at least one assistant coach. And therein lies the bigger issue behind the reaction, which cost WVU any chance it had of winning the game.
It's understandable that teams, even veteran ones, may lose it emotionally from time to time. It happens in any competitive situation. And as we're talking about college kids here, it shouldn't be a surprise. But that's where the coaches come in. They have to guard and teach against that. And if it does happen (and it's going to at times, no matter how much teaching is done), it needs to be corrected quickly. In this case, neither happened. Not only did the mid-field pushing and jawing go on far longer than necessary, it also involved, at least on the verbal side, non-players. It extended all the way to halftime, when Holgorsen was seen exchanging less-than-pleasantries with former WVU and current Oklahoma assistant coach Bill Bedenbaugh. That, in conjunction with the reaction to the pre-game nonsense, sent a clear message that totally contradicted whatever teaching was done during the week about not responding to provocation. 'Hey, if the coach is doing it, then what I'm dong must be o.k.'
All this, or at least the fact that WVU's collective heads were not in a good place, was confirmed by the limited number of players who were permitted to speak after the loss, as well as assistant coaches Tony Gibson and JaJuan Seider. All noted, in one way or another, that West Virginia was more concerned with replying to the perceived disrespect than with actually playing the game. Unfortunately, it didn't appear as if many efforts were made to get the Mountaineers out of that funk. Holgorsen said that personal fouls “were addressed at halftime” but of course, by then it was far too late, as WVU trailed by a number bigger than the temperature.
In the coming days, West Virginia's ability and readiness to bounce back and play well at Iowa State will be examined. There will be lots of copy generated as to whether or not WVU will continue to play hard with one of their main goals gone. (Wide receiver Daikiel Shorts promised such on Twitter, and thanked the fans who stuck with the team.) However, the bigger question is whether a coaching staff that defended their team's reaction understands the damage that approach caused, and corrects or changes what it is teaching. That will be difficult, even if the staff is so inclined to do so. Ignoring “challenges to your manhood” or the ever-popular “disrespect” is often perceived as weakness. However, the real strength is in the ability to disregard distractions (another coaching mantra) and concentrate on the task at hand. That's the path that must be taken here.
Certainly, WVU must play with toughness. It can't be intimidated when facing blockers or trying to slow hard-charging runners. Somehow, though, that's gotten equated with responding to trash talk, or to cheap shots. That's the line that can't be crossed, because it's there where West Virginia went off the rails on Saturday night. All the posturing and chest-thrusting at mid-field may have met with short-term approval, but in the long run it cost the Mountaineers any chance it had of winning the game. That can't be a message that anyone approves of.