Former WVU and Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had a blueprint for building a program that was as follows: first you lose big, then you lose close, then you win close, and finally you win big. In 2011, the Mountaineers closed out the Big East by winning three closely contested games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida they followed those wins with the big Orange Bowl victory against Clemson. When the Mountaineers started their 2012 inaugural Big 12 season by averaging 52 points a game with an average margin of victory of 17 points it looked like the blueprint laid out by Bowden was in its final stage with Heisman Trophies and National Championships on the horizon.
Unfortunately, as we all know, the wheels came off and inexperience in both the coaching ranks and depth chart showed that the Mountaineers were really at the beginning of the blueprint. Following their 5-0 start to the 2012 season WVU lost six of their next eight games (bowl game included) by an astounding 20.5 points per game. Indeed, the Mountaineers were at square one and losing big.
The 2013 season started with several question marks with the departure of a trio of record setters in Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Although the staff brought in heralded transfers Charles Sims, Clint Trickett and Kevin White only Sims was immediately ready to make an impact. After a promising performance (defensively at least) against Oklahoma the Mountaineers next four losses came by 101 points, an average of 25 points per loss. Save for some garbage points in the Baylor loss, WVU did not score over 30 points in that stretch of losses. It seemed as though the Mountaineers were actually regressing and were in lose big purgatory, but as the season went on and the losses piled up WVU was actually making progress.
The Mountaineers next three losses came by an average of nine points with two of the losses coming in overtime. In addition, WVU average 34 points per game in those three losses and twice went over 40 points. Granted, two of the next three losses were against Kansas and Iowa State the Mountaineers were nonetheless slowly piecing it together.
So far in the 2014 season the Mountaineers have both lost close and won close along with doing what is expected against lesser competition. It will be nice when WVU fans can count wins against Maryland and Texas Tech as givens, but we should not underestimate the importance of winning close. With the chips stacked against them and a steady onslaught of adversity, much of their own making, the Mountaineers have stood together and overcome. Not only have they overcome difficult situations, but they have done so relying on several players, not just their "superstars". It's players like Wes Tonkery, Dustin Garrison, Nick Kwiatkoski and Jordan Thompson making game changing plays when it counts. This fact characterizes the depth and the "next man up" mentality that this team has. That mentality, along with overcoming the odds, and pulling out close wins does something else besides putting W's in the win column. Close wins help a team develop a sense of invincibility and confidence that is essential to making the jump from losing close to top ten teams to beating them.
The Mountaineers have turned it around from losing by average margins of 25 points a game to grinding out thrilling victories against tough programs. There is perhaps no better game to see where this program truly stands than the upcoming game against Baylor. In 2013 the Bears so shook the core of the Mountaineers in a 73-42 throttling that many of the coaches have said the team never recovered from it. This year's game is a chance for WVU to show what it has gained from tough performances against the Alabama's and Oklahoma's of the world, and hard fought road wins. WVU is battle tested, and with their third chance against a top five opponent this season, the Mountaineers are due. The chances of blowing out Baylor are slim to none, but a victory will prove that the Mountaineers are continuing to move forward in the right direction and will also put WVU squarely in the mix for a Big 12 title.