By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In the glow of early-season euphoria, this off week for West Virginia University’s football team was supposed to be a reward.
It would allow the coaching staff to get off and recruit, the players some pressure-free rest and relaxation to enjoy unbeaten status and a Top 5 national ranking.
Why, they might even get in extra work toward the upcoming Nov. 3 game against TCU and maybe even get a sneak peek and a little early preparation for the game the season seemed to be coming down to, Oklahoma.
Then the season, and the thinking, changed with a pair of difficult-to-imagine defeats to Texas Tech and Kansas State in which they gave up 49 and 55 points and scored but 14 in each game.
Now the recruiting goes on this week, but with an emphasis on immediate help out of junior colleges for next season, and the team goes back to the basics, unimaginable stuff really for a team that once was in the Top 5.
It is again the ABCs of football, where to line up, how to tackle, how to cover a receiver.
“This Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we will get back to the basics out there,” coach Dana Holgorsen explained in his weekly press conference. “Last off week, we put the ball down and played a lot, because it was so early in the season. At this point, it is more important to focus on the fundamentals of football.”
It is as a senior majoring in literature had to go back and relearn the alphabet … or is it?
The way Holgorsen looks at it, especially on the defensive side of the ball, this is a kindergarten class that has been forced upon him through failures and injuries, people playing at a level that should be complex and advanced before they have mastered the basics.
“When you play as many young kids as we are, the first thing that is going to go is the technique during the heat of battle,” Holgorsen said. “We will focus a lot on fundamentals and on basic football. Offensively, that will be tempo, our base plays, blocking and keeping the timing. Defensively, it will be proper alignment, technique, back peddling, breaking on the ball, run fills and making tackles.”
On the two-deep heading into the K-State game, the offense had four true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen listed, while on defense it was a staggering six true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen. That means among the 44 players most likely to play, 10 were true freshmen and six redshirt freshmen.
How did this happen? A team that is believed to be a contender for a national championship isn’t supposed to be fielding so many young players, especially when it isn’t a team that traditionally stocks up 4- and 5-star recruits.
“It is based on what have you done for me lately,” Holgorsen explained. “You make the decision to play who you think is the better player. You have to figure out is the ceiling higher for a younger kid versus an older kid.”
To be brutally honest, Holgorsen has been feeling his best chances lay with the kids in certain positions.
Take the case of wide receiver J.D. Woods, a senior.
“He has played a good bit but hasn’t make a bunch of plays, got better in camp, but he has faded a bit recently,” Holgorsen said. “That is what I mean about a mature football team. He has gotten a lot better, but he needs to act a little bit older in a situation like the other night (against Kansas State).”
He needed to bring experience, leadership to the situation, but it wasn’t there out of him or several other veteran players.
“After you make the decision, it is all about performance. If a guy is not performing, you make the change. The biggest motivation in college football is playing time, but you don’t want to sit a guy down that you don’t think has a guy behind him that is better than him. You want to play the better player,” Holgorsen said.
This, plus injuries, has led to the situation he has found, one where the freshmen have taken some jobs that veterans could have claimed.
This has led to a team that has played immaturely of late.
“Aside from the fact that we would like our 20 freshmen to be seniors, we need to, from a mentality standpoint, grow up,” Holgorsen said. “We can’t use the excuse of not having enough snaps. We have to grow and play older than we are.”
And this just isn’t on the freshmen.
“We need the older guys to act older. We need the older guys to bring along the younger kids. We need them to be tough when adversity hits,” he said.
The difference between WVU’s maturity and K-State’s this week was startling.
“We played a team (Kansas State) that has that matured. They are the most mature team in college football. They are very old, and they have played a lot of football. They are mentally tough, and their technique is not lost during the heat of the battle,” Holgorsen said.
“We can learn a lot from playing a team like that.”
And so the off week is being devoted to going backward rather than looking forward.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.