West Virginia's ferocious final minute comeback against Cincinnati on Saturday night nearly resulted in one of the more improbable victories in the storied history of Mountaineer football. Instead, the comeback became merely a footnote for the larger body of work (that being another frustrating game in a season full of them).
The most maddening thing about Saturday night's loss? The same old bugaboos that have haunted West Virginia throughout the season were again apparent. And this time, the combination of all these shortcomings was too much for the Mountaineers to overcome.
The most glaring inconsistency throughout the season has been kickoff coverage. WVU entered the weekend ranked 119 out of 119 Division I FBS teams in kickoff coverage. Cincinnati ranked first in kick returns. Thus, it shouldn't have come as much surprise that UC's Mardy Gilyard took the opening kickoff 100 yards to the house, zapping any and all momentum that West Virginia possessed at the beginning of the nationally televised primetime home game.
West Virginia also struggled to convert on third downs, finishing just four-of-20 in that crucial statistic. More specifically, the Mountaineers were completely ineffective in short-yardage situations.
On third down and less than two yards, WVU converted just once in six attempts. Twice, the Mountaineers failed to score with possession inside the UC 15. In a game such as Saturday's when offensive opportunities to score were few and far between, a lack of execution inside the red zone is backbreaking.
Let me preface this by saying that I am a huge, HUGE fan of UC head coach Brian Kelly. The guy can flat out coach, and is a proven winner at the Division II level, in the MAC, and – despite his relatively short tenure at Cincinnati – in the Big East. I hope he turns down Tennessee, Clemson and/or any other potential suitors who come begging for his services at the conclusion of the 2008 season, because what he's done at Cincinnati is not a job that can easily be replicated in his absence.
He's also a breath of fresh air in the media room, where his brutally honest assessments and quick wit make for an entertaining interview.
However, two of his decisions on Saturday night – one right after the other – played a big hand in letting West Virginia back into the game with 1:11 to play.
First, let's talk about the decision to have punter Kevin Huber take a safety on fourth-and-five from the UC six. Huber, it should be noted, is arguably the finest punter in the country. At the deliberate rate West Virginia's offense was moving the football, and for that matter the dominance being displayed by the Bearcat defense, why not make the Mountaineers earn whatever points they can get?
The worst-case scenario had UC punted was a blocked punt resulting in a touchdown for WVU. And even then, the Mountaineers would have to execute an onside kick, recover, and score another touchdown to win the game. Again, with the way things had gone all night when WVU had the ball, I'm not sure that could have happened.
Of course if Huber got the punt off, West Virginia would still have been trailing by 13 with a minute to go. A touchdown drive, an onside kick recovery and another touchdown drive in roughly a minute – all the while holding no timeouts – would have been an almost impossible task for WVU or any other team.
Instead, Kelly took the safety, putting points on the board that the Mountaineers didn't really have to earn, and meaning a touchdown, two-point conversion and field goal would send the game to overtime.
The second "Wait, are they seriously doing that?" moment from the Bearcats was coming out in a prevent defense after ensuing free kick following the safety. UC had been running downhill and putting pressure on Pat White all night, and all of the sudden they decide to sit back and not rush anyone?
White, obviously, made them pay by moving the Mountaineers downfield for a touchdown and two-point conversion to setup Pat McAfee's onside kick an subsequent game-tying field goal.
"Our defense played well all day, up until we got into that darn prevent stuff, which we all know, prevents you from winning," Kelly said afterward. See? I told you he was refreshing.
Obviously it worked out in the end for Kelly, but in this know-nothing's opinion, both of these decisions were head-scratching.
Switching to basketball, West Virginia had some impressive performances in a 98-78 win over NAIA power Mountain State University. Most notable among them was Da'Sean Butler's 38-point, 11-rebound effort.
Freshman Devin Ebanks started, and while he was just 1-7 from the floor, Ebanks didn't sulk in his poor shooting performance. Instead, he buckled down in just about every other area of his game.
In 20 minutes of play, Ebanks collected six rebounds, blocked three shots and collected three steals. Those numbers combined stood out far more to me than his offensive woes, as did the mature way in which he didn't let his offensive struggles dampen his effort on the other end of the floor.
If you look at any championship-caliber basketball team in the collegiate or professional ranks, you'll notice that every player on the team not only knows his role, but accepts it and carries it out at a high level. Just look at each of last season's Final Four participants and you will see precisely that. (Of course, UCLA, Memphis, Kansas and UNC were also the four most talented teams in America last year. That might have had something to do with their success as well).
While Ebanks is unquestionably a natural and gifted scorer, he'll have to provide more than points for West Virginia to truly be as good as it can be this season.
If I'm the Mountaineers, I'll gladly take an activity-filled effort such as the one Ebanks gave on Saturday over a game in which he might score 14 points, but not make an impact defensively or on the boards.
Finally, I keep getting asked by friends, subscribers, etc. for my 2008-09 WVU basketball prediction.
What I've said, and what I'll reiterate here, is that West Virginia could turn out to be better than they were a year ago, but not necessarily end up with as many wins. Playing against an immensely upgraded schedule which includes a host of stiff tests in conference and non-conference foes alike, the Mountaineers will certainly take some lumps from November to March.
If I know one thing about Bob Huggins coached teams, though, it is that they will rebound the ball, and they will play defense. They did it a year ago with an undersized roster, and my hunch is they will do it again this year despite the similar size deficiencies. In basketball, if you can rebound and you can defend, you will almost always be in the game at the end.
I also expect that the team that takes the floor against Elon will be better than the one which played Mountain State. And the team that plays Iowa later this month in the Las Vegas Invitational will be better than the team that hosts the Phoenix next weekend.
Add it all up, and my only expectation for this team is as follows: West Virginia will be light years better at season's end than they are at the beginning. Will that be enough to send them on another run through the NCAA tournament again? We'll see. Any way you slice it, this should be another fun year for all of college basketball, Morgantown included.