WVU Not Walking The Walk in ’11

MORGANTOWN – Each year, the West Virginia Mountaineers select a different tune to blare on the sound system as they take Mountaineer Field.

Once there, it seems, they get stuck playing the same one.

West Virginia’s 38-35 loss to Louisville on Saturday was its second loss this season to a team it was favored to beat by double digits. It’s pretty much happened at least once – and in most cases twice – every year since the Mountaineers regularly started to become favorites, with one head-scratcher following another. It’s a trend that has spanned several senior classes, and now, a third head coach.

Most of those years, they’ve begun as the preseason pick to win the Big East. We know what they can do as underdogs, as they have a history of relishing the role (see Bowls, BCS). But is this a program that simply cannot play from out front?

Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen will simply – and blatantly – tell you WVU was beaten by a Cardinals team that hadn’t won back-to-back league games in five seasons Saturday because it lost the turnover battle, couldn’t punt, and couldn’t kick.

While all of those were true, and at times it can be as simple as that, but it doesn’t explain everything. The good teams are supposed to either not commit the turnovers or bounce back and find another way to get things done despite them.

These Mountaineers, through nine games, have proved they’re not good enough to do that. Perhaps they never were.

Defensive lineman Julian Miller knows that West Virginia, a program that has won 50 of its last 66 Big East games, is generally going to get everyone’s best shot. That’s how Syracuse can look like a pre-NCAA investigation USC team one week against the Mountaineers, and, well, like Syracuse the next.

Still, good teams should be able to take that best shot, then deliver a knockout blow. Instead, they just seem to put more blood in the water.

“You’ve just got to go out there and match their intensity and hard play,” Miller said. “That’s one thing that sometimes we can do at any given point, but to put it together for all four quarters, we’re still having a little trouble doing that. I think that’s what has haunted us these past couple games”

Perhaps, unless you truly believe the Big East is as full of as much parity as Holgorsen claimed it is earlier this week. He called it as even a conference as he’s ever seen. So a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, in his eyes, can turn a 14-point underdog into a winner.

“When you move down the field and put yourself in position to get points, obviously you need to knock the ball through and make sure you’re doing your job up front,” Holgorsen said. “That’s a 10-point swing there. Two (missed/blocked) field goals counts as a 10-point swing. It’s pretty easy to figure out what the difference in the game is.”

On the surface, sure. But West Virginia had so many other opportunities to win this game. The defense, for the most part, just wasn’t there. Trailing by three with a little more than 8 minutes left, the Mountaineers couldn’t stop Louisville, with its true freshman quarterback, from going 66 yards on 13 plays and going up 10 with less than 2 minutes left. They gave up three plays of 10 or more yards on a drive that ended with Dominique Brown, a player Louisville lists as a backup quarterback, finding his way in from 3 yards out. Brown had six carries on that drive, including a 2-yard run on a fourth-and-1 call.

“When we needed a stop there at the end,” Holgorsen said, “we didn’t get it.”

Good teams find a way to keep teams thinking about that first down that never came well into the offseason. Not these Mountaineers.

“You can’t really try go throughout the season thinking that you’re crowned to win the Big East and you’re going to win the Big East,” Miller said. “Teams are going to come out and just try to play you as tough and as hard as they can because you’re the preseason favorite.

“You want to come into a game confident. If you don’t come into a game expecting to win, they why even play? We just need to execute better. Alright, we can talk the talk, but we need to start walking the walk.”

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: elliott@theintelligencer.net