The schizophrenic West Virginia Mountaineers were their normal abnormal selves on Saturday as they lost a hard-fought 37-27 game to The Texas Tech Red Raiders in a rainy Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown - their first home loss of the year. In a loss that will stick with Mountaineer fans for awhile as one that got away, WVU at least demonstrated that the embarrassment at Baylor was an aberration and it's reasonable to expect competitive play for the rest of Big 12 play - at least in Morgantown.
West Virginia dropped their first home tilt of the year after fighting their way out of an early 13-0 deficit but then tying it up at the half in the midst of a 27-3 run that saw them take an 11 point lead in the 3rd quarter. During the stretch the Mountaineer offense looked as organized and balanced as it has all year with Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith providing a formidable 1 - 2 punch out of the backfield and Clint Trickett connecting on a couple key long passes but mostly hitting on high-percentage throws that kept the chains moving. Smith had his most productive day as a Mountaineer, finishing with 89 yards on 16 carries and a pair of scores. Sims 77 yards on 15 carries were impressive as well and he added 7 catches for 32 yards and a TD.
Unfortunately it was when WVU DIDN'T run in this game that will stick with people. After using an effective run game to set up manageable 2nd and 3rd down situations throughout the 2nd and 3rd quarters, WVU mysteriously abandoned the ground attack as Texas Tech surged and instead turned to Trickett and the air game, resulting in erratic results and several 3rd and longs.
Trickett was at times very effective, finishing 27 of 43 for 254 yards and a score but most importantly no interceptions - although he got some help from Red Raiders who dropped a couple early opportunities - but that effectiveness was only demonstrated when WVU employed balanced playcalling.
Early in the game Trickett seemed to pick up where he left off in Waco two weeks ago, saturating the pass game with futile attempts at connecting on long post patterns that had relatively low chance of success. As in Waco the gains were as much from pass interference penalties as completed passes. There were catches, though. Kevin White was as productive as we'd seen him, hauling in 5 catches for 77 yards, including a 40 yard reception on 3rd and long from the WVU one yard line that keyed a 99 yard touchdown drive and seemed to change the complexion of the game. Daikiel Shorts had a nice day as well, leading all receivers with 9 catches for 78 yards. For the first time we saw a glimpse of what this WVU receiving corps could be.
But when Texas Tech got their offense back on track and landed a couple shots on the gold and blue chin, the Mountaineers blinked. Red Raider tight end Jace Amaro kept alive the long tradition of tight ends shredding the Mountaineers as he spent most of the day uncovered, amassing 9 catches for 136 yards and a pair of 10 yard scores that opened and closed scoring in the game.
Most of the fan frustration with losing a game that head coach Dana Holgorsen admitted "we should have won" will be directed at the head guy himself. There was an enigmatic decision early to bypass a 43 yard field goal attempt and instead go for it on 4th and 14 (the pass wasn't even close). Later in the game, after establishing a nice playcalling rhythm that mixed runs with pass, Holgorsen abandoned the run. On five scoring drives in the 2nd and 3rd quarters WVU ran 21 times for 100 yards. On the final 5 drives of the game (that all resulted in punts) there were only 5 gives to the tailbacks for 15 yards.
Holgorsen himself seemed as frustrated as we've seen him, dropping an inadvertent f-bomb live on air as he jostled through the crowd in the first attempt at a post-game interview for WVU's radio broadcast (he eventually gave a full interview) and saying in the post-game press conference that "effort wasn't a problem" but his team didn't display a "will to win." I doubt watching tape of how close it was will do much to alleviate his exasperation.
All in all it was an effort that left fans with equal parts hope and hopelessness. This was clearly a step forward from the blowout at Baylor, but finding 3 wins in the next 5 games will take a lot more consistent and competent play than what we saw today. The one nugget of positivity - next game will be the first time yet in conference play that WVU will face a foe who doesn't enter undefeated. These are games they can win.
The future of the Mountaineers is entirely their own.