By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Much has made of West Virginia University’s defensive shortcomings this season, and rightfully so, but when it comes to the latest loss at Texas Tech it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that the offense put only 14 points on the board despite having the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy at quarterback and the two leading candidates for the Biletnikoff Award at receiver.
The tendency is to write it off as one of those days, a smudge on what has been a Mona Lisa season to date.
“Every team is going to lose a game. Just like last year. We lost to Syracuse. It woke us up. I think we’re woke up now,” is the way one of those Biletnikoff Award candidates, Tavon Austin, put it.
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson also understands that dynamic of the situation.
“It’s hard to execute at an extremely high level every week,” he said. “I told our group, when you’re a little off … and we were a little off. Geno (Smith) was a little off; our receivers were a little off; every single person was a little off.
“I told them when that happens you have to have great leadership. Someone has to step up. Even if the others don’t want to follow, you have to drag their (rear). Somebody has to step up to make a play. It can’t be other people waiting on Stedman Bailey to make a play. It can’t be other people waiting on Tavon Austin to make a play.”
But no one made that play.
And that was scary, not so much that no one made it but the why behind no one making it.
“Everybody is talking about why and a lot of it in my opinion is just excuses. You talk about the environment and you talk about back-to-back road games … the bottom line is we got a schedule at the beginning of the year. We knew we were playing in Lubbock on that day. For us not to show up, there’s no excuse for that,” Dawson said.
Dawson had his own theory on why, and it wasn’t an excuse.
“If you looked at the stats, it looked like we were in the game,” he said. “But the stat they never keep is mental and physical toughness, and they beat the hell out of us in both of them.”
Is this a soft team when staring at a difficult situation?
“I’m not going to label us soft unless we are soft more than one time. We’ve been tough a lot this year,” Dawson said.
And now there is more. Two the next four games are season makers or breakers. First comes Kansas State, unbeaten and No. 4 in the country, on Saturday, and then comes Oklahoma on Nov. 17, a game that could be the biggest one in Morgantown in some time if the Mountaineers can right themselves and beat K-State.
Another problem stands before the Mountaineers, however, and that is injuries.
They may run out of the field Saturday against the Wildcats at full strength, save for cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, who has been declared out, but they may not, the offense being very banged up in the Texas Tech loss.
The biggest boost they could get, of course, would be a healthy Shawne Alston coming back from what they’ve termed a deep thigh bruise, perhaps the worst in history as it has kept him out of action for a month.
Just the presence of the senior would give the offense a huge mental lift at a time when it really needs it, to say nothing of another pair of legs to go with Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison.
Stedman Bailey limped to the locker room on a gimpy ankle after missing the second half in Lubbock, but Austin vows his running mate will play.
“He will definitely be playing this week. We’ll have our one-two punch back,” Austin said on Tuesday night.
And Jeff Braun, the powerful offensive guard, also had an ankle and showed up with it in a walking boot on Tuesday but vowed he, too, would play against Kansas State.
Considering how strong K-State is on defense and how they like to control the flow and tempo of the game, slowing it down to their advantage, WVU cannot afford to be at less than full strength coming in.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.