By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University will celebrate the careers of 22 seniors — some of them the most productive ever to play at the school — today as it faces Kansas in the final game of the regular season, but the seniors would much rather celebrate a victory than their careers.
To win would allow this team, picked in the preseason to finish second behind Oklahoma in its new conference, the Big 12, to finish with a winning record, while a loss would leave them at .500 at 6-6. Either is a disappointment, but the 7-5 record is expected to get the Mountaineers a bid to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, while a loss would probably send them off to New York City on a cold December day to play in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Kansas comes in having lost 10 in a row after an opening-day victory, but that only serves to make it a scary, unpredictable opponent for Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and their 20 senior cohorts, along with the rest of the Mountaineers.
“It’s a scary game,” besieged defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. “It really is, because what do they have to lose? They can run tricks in the kicking game; they can run tricks on offense. They’ve had two weeks to prepare for us, so we may see things we’ve never seen before. They may try anything to win their first Big 12 game.”
A year ago, WVU was in this position often, but that was the Big East and this is the Big 12, and the difference was never clearer than it is right now.
“That is the nature of the conference we are in,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Last year, we played three or four teams in this situation. Now, we don’t get to play any. Our last eight games have been against ranked teams that will play in a bowl game.
“Every team that we have played this year has been motivated to play. Last year, it was different. I don’t think we have lined up and played an unmotivated football team this year. The fact that we are going to line up and play a motivated team for the 12th time this season is the way they should be.”
It’s possible that Kansas’ record is somewhat deceiving. It had shots at winning against some pretty solid Big 12 teams, including Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, which was a two-overtime defeat, and Texas.
The last loss was a not-so-close blowout at home on Senior Day to Iowa State.
“That was a very, very disappointing loss, but I’m kind of glad the schedule worked out the way it did and we didn’t play Thanksgiving weekend because you can only get your guys up psychologically in a short time span so many times without them being flat,” KU coach Charlie Weis said. “We were set up to be flat last week, so it was good we had a chance to get away.”
And now they come on the road, having lost every Big 12 games for the last two years facing an underachieving WVU team, one which wants to leave a strong impression upon the home fans and the nation down the stretch after suffering through its own five-game losing streak until beating Iowa State the last time out.
The Jayhawks will run up against a senior class whose legacy really came a year ago when it was part of and contributed greatly to a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. It is a senior class, most of whom were recruited five years ago that went through a great deal.
The first year most of them were coming was the year Rich Rodriguez jumped ship for Michigan.
“I was here in the meeting when he said he would sign a contract to stay forever … but he didn’t, so …” center Joey Madsen said. “It was still for the good. I came here for the school and the atmosphere and the legacy I’d leave … not the coaches.”
Good thing, for he saw three of them. This class went through Rodriguez’s exit, the hiring of Stewart after the Fiesta Bowl, Stewart’s exit and the introduction of Holgorsen.
And then, of course, they rode the conference mystery tour that didn’t end until the Big 12 took West Virginia in.
It was a lot.
“We’ve stuck together. We knew that even with the coaching changes and moving to the Big 12 that we would be the same team that we’ve always been. We had to step up, work harder, and that’s how we’ll leave,” Madsen said.
They are branded by the passing of Geno Smith, the exciting and inventive play of Tavon Austin, and probably will adopt junior Stedman Bailey into the group with his record-shattering receiving for it’s expected he will declare for the NFL draft this year.
But they still have work to do. They must stop Kansas’ deceivingly good running game, must use the final couple of games to shore up a defense that was the worst ever at the school and they have a bowl game ahead of them, one that could turn this into an eight-victory season, which isn’t what has been the norm of late but could serve as a bridge to the future.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.