By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Let us understand one thing before moving forward.
While West Virginia University is bowl eligible, it has not yet saved its season.
Ask anyone about that. This was a team that many considered a contender for the Big 12 title, if not the national championship, and after a fast start that sent it screaming off in that direction, the season came undone like a ball of yarn in the paws of a kitten.
Unless the Mountaineers beat Kansas, no matter what happens it can’t be considered anything but a failure.
Read into that what you want, but this week is a tricky proposition for coach Dana Holgorsen, getting his team into the proper mindset to close out the regular season moving in the right direction.
Either they will be juiced up to make sure that they can get the best bowl bid they can get and avoid a .500 season, or they will take the approach that they have a 1-10 team to beat in the friendly confines of Milan Puskar Stadium while failing to realize that this is a dangerous opponent.
Naturally, when a team breaks a five-game losing streak and accomplishes the only real goal it had left in the year, being bowl qualified, there is that danger of coming out flat and unemotional. It is up to Holgorsen and his staff, along with the senior leadership who certainly would disdain losing their final home game, to instill emotion into the team.
Meanwhile, as they do that, Charlie Weis will be using all the mental tricks he has assimilated in years of both the NFL as a top assistant and in college football at a variety of schools, but certainly none with any more prestige than Notre Dame.
Convincing his team that it has performed better than its record and this is a chance to prove it surely is a challenge, but Weis has been doing just that all season. He lost early in the year by a point to Rice, by a touchdown to Northern Illinois, by four points to Texas and in double overtime to Texas Tech.
“Considering that you just lost a game in double overtime there’s major disappointment,” Weis said on the following week’s Big 12 call. He indicated that he was worried his team might completely collapse there, much as Holgorsen worried that the losing streak might weigh too heavily on WVU.
Learning to lose comes before you learn to win, in most cases, and that certainly is what Kansas is doing, and it may actually be what’s happening here in West Virginia, elevating the meaning of each victory in the future.
All Holgorsen and Weis are thinking about now is teaching their teams how to win, especially in the close games that have dragged both teams to depths they would prefer never to have reached.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Weis admitted. “I told my staff that everything we’ve done this year will make us better going forward. We had to come up with more inventive ways to run the ball because everyone knew we were running it.”
Now, when they integrate a passing game, they will have the balance that they seek, much the same as West Virginia had to be creative in turning Tavon Austin into a running threat as well as a receiving threat.
Asked how Iowa State had tried to defend him after he had that spectacular coming-out party as a running back against Oklahoma, Holgorsen answered:
“They probably had two or three people that were assigned to him more than anything. We’re going to come up with creative ways to get him the ball. They did a pretty good job of containing him and filling with the safeties, but we still got him the ball 20 times.”
And when they had to get him the ball, he took it 75 yards for the winning touchdown.
The point is, adversity forced Holgorsen’s hand there by creating desperation. So it is with Charlie Weis and a Kansas team that will come to town Saturday as a huge underdog, with its season about to end and going nowhere.
They have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And nothing to lose but another football game.
West Virginia is not exactly in that situation. The Mountaineers are playing for something.
The Holiday Bowl has just about guaranteed them that they will head to San Diego over Christmas, and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to spend a December day at the San Diego Zoo rather than the Bronx Zoo, at Coronado Island rather than Long Island, at Mission Bay rather than Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
And, as a prize, instead of facing Syracuse or even Pitt in New York’s Pinstripe Bowl, they could possibly square off with USC in what some thought was going to be the national championship game this year.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.