By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia football is heading in the wrong direction and that is an undeniable reality.
That is not a conclusion drawn solely out of the debacle that was a 38-14 loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday, not when you consider that the Mountaineers fell from the No. 5 team in America and one of the popular choices to contend for a national title five games into the season into laughable losers.
They lost five of their last seven games, with the only two victories coming against the worst two teams in the Big 12 — Iowa State and Kansas.
They did it while their play decayed in all areas, topped off with a laughable performance in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The tendency is to blame it on the weather or on the officiating, which was atrocious, but that is to be looking in the wrong direction.
In truth, the groundwork was laid when it turned out that one of the key seniors on the WVU offensive line didn’t have enough respect for the game, his teammates, the fans or himself to find a way to make himself academically eligible for the game.
That point received an exclamation point on the final play of the game when quarterback Geno Smith could not handle the snap from under center, as ugly a way to end a season as you can imagine ... but you wonder, too, how much Joey Madsen’s absence and the shuffle that had to be worked out led to two — yes, two, not one — safeties, Smith being sacked in the end zone.
Might this unfamiliarity within the offensive line have not also led to total and utter failure on third and fourth down, West Virginia never converting one in the entire game? They were 0-for-10 on third down tries and 0-for-2 on fourth down tries.
Actually, it was 1-for-2 because there was a moment when they broke Andrew Buie loose and into the end zone from the 12 on fourth and 2, but that celebration was short lived for there was a hold on the play — one of 10 penalties assessed against WVU by this Pac-10 officiating crew.
It was so bad that WVU had more yards lost in penalties, 104, than gained rushing, 100.
One had imagined that this would be a driven WVU team, one that had lost its last two games to Syracuse, including an embarrassing 49-23 loss while ranked No. 11 in the nation and then were upended in the previous season.
Instead of being driven, they were embarrassed by Syracuse’s game style. Oh, the Mountaineers were ready to fight before the game. That just doesn’t count.
The Orange were physical on a day when finesse was not going to work, not with the flakes falling, the wind blowing and the temperature dropping.
Embarrassing? Syracuse, a team that likes to throw the ball and would figure to try and take advantage of that well-documented weakness in the WVU defense, turned to the run and had two backs gain more yardage than WVU could gain as a team.
Jerome Smith bulldozed his way for 158 yards and Prince-Tyson Gulley rushed for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Combined they rushed for 376 yards.
“They ran the football on us today and we couldn’t stop them,” new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson admitted.
This absolutely stunned the new coordinator, who said he didn’t think they would be able to run the ball.
What’s more, even though the Mountaineers were terrible through the first half, they were down only 12-7, still very much involved and very much with a chance to make some adjustments and change the game.
“At halftime I thought we made a good adjustment that would stop them and they came out,” Patterson said. “What happened, they came out and in a long yardage situation and all of a sudden ran right through us.”
Indeed, they took the second half kickoff and scored on a pass, then recovered a Geno Smith fumble at their own 33 and, on the next play, handed the ball to Prince. Sixty-seven yards later he crossed the goal line with the touchdown that broke the game wide open.
Toughness and the ability to run the ball in situations such as the ones that presented themselves Saturday put WVU at a large disadvantage.
“The team with the best running game is going to win, and they clearly had the better running game,” Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
But anyone who has ever played football or studied it closely understands that running the football is an attitude, a way of life. If you can’t convert a third down in an entire football game, you sure are not going to be able to stop a team determined upon running to glory.
Holgorsen now has a lot of self-analysis to do of himself, his beliefs and the way he is going to go after his goals at West Virginia. The people of this state deserve a whole lot better than this.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.