Justin K. Aller
A closer look at a frustrating loss reveals plenty to be happy about - really, I'm serious.
This is gonna be weird. It was weird for me when I started breaking things down on Sunday night as I re-watched the game. It got weirder as I looked at the numbers and weirder as I read columns like this one from Berry Tramel that stacked up the offensive accomplishments of this Mountaineer team like cordwood.
The fact of the matter is that a unit-by-unit look at WVU shows that, with one glaring omission, they graded out pretty well. Considering the competition and the context, there's just not a lot more you could have asked of (most of) this team - yet they lost. And not just any loss, but the type of demoralizing all-in loss that makes you wonder if they can recover in 6 short days.
As bad as the TCU loss was, for my money this was far more painful. You had a chance to beat the #12 team in the country and get your conference record within a game of .500 in one fell swoop, not to mention set things up for a better-than-you-could-have-dreamed bowl position with another pair of wins. 8-4 in the country's best conference (sorry SEC, it's true) is pretty damned good and the 'Eers had a real shot at it. Now they've assured themselves a losing record in the Big 12 and will struggle to get into any bowl at all.
I'm trying not to let the disappointment cloud my judgment, however and I would ask that you do the same. Saturday night was a special night for a lot of reasons and you would do a disservice to yourself and (most of) your team that worked so hard if you just labeled it a loss and chucked it to the side.
There was certainly some bad, but there was so much more good.
The rumors of Geno Smith's demise are greatly exaggerated. Ditto for Stedman Bailey. Obviously they had big days in Stillwater last week, but this was something far beyond that. Consider that Oklahoma's defense had only allowed 3 touchdown passes ALL SEASON with Collin Klein, Seth Doege and Nick Florence all combining to throw as many scores against the Sooners as everyone reading this - zero. They had held opposing QBs to under 50% completions. They hadn't allowed a 300 yard passer.
Not any more.
Geno was 20/35 for 57% and threw for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns. Stedman Bailey had one of the 5 best days a WVU receiver ever has, catching 13 for 205 yards and all 4 of those scores. Geno was dropping balls in buckets again, hitting Bailey with a pair of the most perfectly placed fade routes in the end zone that you'll ever see - it was just like old times.
I feel like I'm missing someone.
Oh yeah, Tavon Austin set the school record 344 rushing yards on 21 carries in his FIRST START AT RUNNING BACK. Even if he hadn't managed to account for over 200 yards in various other ways, this was perhaps the greatest performance by a Mountaineer ever. You understand why with a reading of Tramel's column:
* Tavon Austin broke the individual rushing record against OU by 109 yards. Austin had 344 yards; Kansas State's Darren Sproles held the record of 235 yards in the 2003 Big 12 title game.
* We can talk about Austin all day. In the whole history of OU football, the tradition of Vessels and Owens and Little Joe and Billy Sims, only one time has a Sooner had two 100-yard rushing quarters in the same game. Adrian Peterson had 110 yards in the third quarter and 100 in the fourth quarter of Bedlam 2005.
* Austin had 157 yards rushing yards in the third quarter, then 107 yards in the fourth quarter.
Once you add in 82 yards receiving and 146 on returns, you end up at 572 all-purpose yards. It dusted the old Big 12 record and set the record for a Sooner opponent BY OVER 200 YARDS. It was 6 yards short of the NCAA record which was set against a New Mexico State team that was most certainly not #12 in the country.
It was the greatest individual performance by any opposing player in the proud history of Oklahoma football. That's a top 5 all-time program folks, and now their record book has great big slashes of blue and gold running through it.
Defense: (nope, not gonna do it)
It is impossible to grade the defensive unit as a whole because of the dramatic differences in what we got out of different units. So I'll do it like this:
Defensive Line/Linebackers: B
And it was closer than you'd think to being an A. The Sooners were rushing for an average of 176.5 yards a game heading into Morgantown. They ran for 108 on 31 carries. If you remove one carry that resulted in a 48 yard touchdown run, you end up at 30 carries for 60 yards: 2 yards per carry. The Bell-Dozer was a non-factor, they got a push on the line and they made tackles. The only complaint could be that they didn't get much pressure on quarterback Landry Jones, but given that they spent a lot of the night rushing 3 to maximize personnel on the back side, that's understandable and not their fault. It was a high level performance.
Defensive Backs: F
A complete and abject failure. I know you win and lose as a team and blah-blah-blah. Not on Saturday night. WVU lost that game because they have what might be the worst defensive backfield in the history of BCS-bowl level college football plain and simple. They take awful angles to make tackles and when they get there they can't finish the job. They remain clueless in coverage and are consistently nowhere around receivers despite dropping as many as EIGHT. Guys have no idea where the ball is and guys have no idea what's coming - and it's not getting any better. A simple bad performance on par with the 2006 defense's ankle-grabbing against Louisville would have been enough for a win. This unit had left that performance in the dust by the end of the 3rd quarter.
Can't miss that PAT. Can't do it. The field goal was close enough it was nothing special so no bonus points there. I've defended Tyler Bitancurt to a lot of folks and I try to remember that he's been responsible for two of the biggest kicks in recent WVU history (Pitt 2009, USF 2011) but you just can't whiff on that one. No quarter given.
Special Teams Coverage and Returns: B-
It was average, but after the last two weeks I was so damn thrilled with average I didn't have the heart to give them a C. Sure that Clay return before the last drive hurt but it was just bad timing - I can remember a lot of WVU losses that would have been wins with an effort where the longest kick return was 46 yards. Truth be told they might have done better to just let him score. Leave it to WVU special teams to lose even when they win.......
Dana Holgorsen: A-
The only problem I had was the fourth down give to Buie when it was clear Tavon was in a place where nobody could touch him. Holgorsen seems insistent on proving something to his team with these stubborn 4th and short calls and I wish they would just tell him "we get it, we're soft, NOW QUIT RUBBING OUR FACE IN IT." Aside from that though I thought he did a great job to pull this team together after some demoralizing defeats and get their best effort of the season.
While I'm sure many expected that he was peeling paint off walls in the halftime locker room, I know for a fact that he was making every effort to rally the team, reminding them they were just a play or two away and encouraging them to embrace the challenge of playing such a great team and program in a fantastic atmosphere. Considering they spent chunks of the night trailing by two scores and never gave up, I don't know that you can ask for a lot more of the man short of hiring a competent to coach his defensive backfield.