By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Let us begin today, less than 48 hours before West Virginia will kick off the most meaningful football game it will play all season at South Florida, with a philosophical lesson that any athlete facing a crucial moment must understand.
It comes not from any great philosopher and neither Sigmund Freud nor B.F. Skinner, but instead from a half century of listening to athletes and coaches, watching them perform under unimaginable stress, be it in a Super Bowl or at Wimbledon, standing over a putt that could win the Masters or facing a 98-mile-an-hour fastball with the World Series on the line.
The conclusion that we have reached is really quite simple: The game is played on the field, but it is won and lost in the mind.
See, if it were just athletic skill or coaching acumen, the results would be far more predictable than they are. It comes down to approach and to the ability to narrow one’s focus, to learn from the past while living in the present.
It is something Dana Holgorsen kept going back to the other day as he discussed this game that could put WVU in position to go to a BCS bowl game and earn a share of the Big East championship with a victory, deflecting almost each question put forth by the media into the workings of the mind rather the mechanics of the game.
It began, perhaps, the biggest unknown facing WVU, that being whether South Florida’s dangerous, dual threat run-pass quarterback B.J. Daniels would be on the field to face WVU.
Holgorsen began with a knowing caution.
“That’s one of those things that you’ve got to be careful how you prepare for it,” he said.
You have to be careful in part because there is such a big difference between the way the offense operates with Daniels or with his replacement, Bobby Eveld. Holgorsen talked of the physical differences between the two, but the real fear Holgorsen has to have is of the lift it would give South Florida psychologically just to have Daniels on the field, even at less than 100 percent and, conversely, the feeling of false security his own team might feel should Daniels not play.
He must create an aura around Eveld as well as Daniels, making sure they know that while Eveld is not the threat Daniels is to make big plays, he must be treated as a live hand grenade who will be driven to show he belongs and can have his own effect on the fate of the Mountaineer season.
Then there is a matter of distractions, so many of them, too many of them ... the kinds of things football coaches hate to deal with yet have to deal with.
They range from simply playing on the road, which in part is why they gather their teams in a hotel for home games. It has to do with playing at 8 p.m. instead of noon or 3 or even 7, for that makes a long, boring day of it, a time perhaps when they can think too many things.
Then here is the site itself, Florida, a state that is loaded with distractions, especially with so many Mountaineer players having friends and families there, meaning they deal with visits and getting tickets and thoughts of what they will be doing after the game.
“Distractions could exist,” Holgorsen admitted. “It’s our job as coaches to make sure those don’t exist. We allow family to come to the hotel, but there’s time set aside for when you can meet with friends and family in the lobby.
“Ultimately, though, it’s about going to play the game and winning it. It’s not about a family reunion or visitation or any of that stuff. I’m sympathetic with them that if they want an hour to visit family and give them a hug, that’s fine. We’ve still got meetings, still have to get them into the rooms, get them to bed, get up and have walkthroughs, and get to the game.”
Even the weather can be a distraction, for it figures to be warm at a time when the body is beginning to regulate itself up north to the long winter.
“We can’t move practice down there for a week,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve faced every kind of weather that exists. We can’t build a bubble and make the weather be what we want it to be. You can’t worry about that. If it’s rain, we’ve got to deal with the rain. If it’s snow, you’ve got to deal with the snow. If it’s wind, you’ve got to deal with the wind. If it’s heat, you’ve got to deal with the heat. We’ll worry about that when we get down there.”
Indeed, the Mountaineers have played in a monsoon that caused the Marshall game to be called early, in a freak snowstorm that hit New Jersey earlier than any had in more than 100 years. They have played in a dome and at day and at night.
But let a ball be blown away from a punt returner in a strong wind and who knows what mental effect it will have on the next punt.
Perhaps most important is the circumstance that WVU’s fate rests only partly in its own hands, that it not only has to win but Cincinnati has to win against Connecticut two days later for WVU to go to the BCS bowl game.
The focus must be on the moment.
“That’s critical,” Holgorsen admitted. “I think we got that last week against Pitt. We were very motivated to play the game and focus only on playing our game. The Cincinnati game was on TV, and whether it was now or six weeks ago, we still would have watched the game.
“We haven’t talked about scenarios with bowl games or any of that stuff. We strictly talk about what our goal is. We set a goal at the beginning of the year to be Big East champions. We can’t be the sole Big East champion, but we can have a part of it. It can be as much ours as anybody else’s in the conference. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we can worry about and all we’re going to focus on the next couple of days.”
The problem is that this has created a pressure-filled situation, sort of a one-game season.
“It is a one-game season,” Holgorsen said Monday. “We have to prepare like it is. We talked with them yesterday about getting together and moving forward.
“We’ve got five days here, really four, to where we can take a break after that, but not now. We can’t take a break. Whatever we did to prepare to beat Cincinnati, whatever we did to prepare to beat Pitt, we have to do it again. We have to do it right now. We don’t have any time to rest or feel good about a victory over Pittsburgh. We have to prepare in five days to go win the game. We can rest after that. The truth of the matter is that it does come down to this one game. It’s the only game left.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.