By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
“Last year we found ways to win. This year we’re finding ways to lose.”
— West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, summing up the difference between last year’s 10-victory season and this year’s 5-5 year.
MORGANTOWN — You might have noticed this past week that West Virginia’s Mountaineers suffered what might be considered a tough loss in some quarters.
You know, at home, against a legendary college football team, nationally ranked, at that, leading not once, but twice in the final five minutes, blowing each lead and then having one final Hail Mary pass fall to the earth as if it were an angel banished from heaven.
That’s a tough loss ... score 49 points and lose.
And it wasn’t the only one.
Two weeks earlier they led by 10 in the second half against TCU, then had Tavon Austin break a tie with 3:56 to play by running back a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, only to give up a 94-yard touchdown pass with 1:28 to tie the game, then miss a field goal and, in the second overtime, lose on a 25-yard pass on a trick play and a two-point conversion.
Another tough loss.
“How many losses like this do we have to go through?” Coach Dana Holgorsen rhetorically asked after the Oklahoma defeat.
Take those two losses and make them wins and see where WVU is going into the final two games of the regular season. Certainly they aren’t scratching just to get a winning season, their record at 7-3. They aren’t worried about a bowl bid, instead hoping to win two straight and maybe get into the BCS. They are probably ranked and enjoying today’s plane ride to Iowa for Friday’s 3:30 p.m. matchup with Iowa State.
Last year, rest assured, they would have won those games.
Last year they knew how to win close games, right from the start.
They survived a tough one at Maryland, building a 34-10 lead before clinching it with a late Tyler Bitancurt field goal, 37-31. Then their stretch run was filled with nail-biters, 24-21 on the road at Cincinnati, 21-20 at home against Pitt and 30-27 over South Florida, again on a Bitancurt field goal as time expired to clinch the Orange Bowl bid.
Win close games one year, lose them the next — why?
“The games typically come down to one or two plays and you don’t know which play it is going to be,” Dawson analyzed. “This year those plays are going against us. It’s just the way football is. The ball is bouncing in the wrong direction, just like at Oklahoma State. Karma is like that. When it starts going against you it really goes against you.”
“It’s just the ball bounces your way,” quarterback Geno Smith said. “This year we had some tough breaks. Last year we got those breaks in key situations. The difference in winning and losing is a small margin.
“No one is going to be able to go out there and dominate. That’s not football.”
“All of the games that we have lost, the guys are playing and working hard in order to try and get a win, but like you said, the ball hasn’t always bounced our way. It was pretty much the same last year in terms of effort, but we are not having the same type of luck,” said defensive lineman Jorge Wright.
They talk of bouncing balls. They talk of karma. They talk of luck.
But in reality, that’s all it is — talk.
You make your own luck. The bounce of the ball at Oklahoma State may have been bad luck, but it wouldn’t have been if Tavon Austin had gotten out of the way.
Karma ... or bad defense.
Give up a 94-yard pass in the last 1:30 of a game and karma has nothing to do with it, unless it’s the name of your cornerback.
In truth, it’s easier to take losses if you get pummeled. No one is talking about the Kansas State loss any longer. Tight losses, giveaways, stick with you.
“It is frustrating. The nail-biters, when you lose by one point or in overtime, are especially bad, because you go home and wonder if you could have done something differently on a play. You always beat yourself up more when you lose like that,” Wright said.
Holgorsen sees no lasting danger from these losses.
“I don’t see that,” Holgorsen said. “Yeah, there’s a worry to that, but we’re still playing for a lot. We’ve got 22 guys who’ve got 12 days left in their college career unless we win one or two and extend this to a bowl game. A bowl game is a reward. You get to a level where a bowl game is much more than a reward, but we’re not at that stage right now. We’re at the stage where we’re playing for the betterment of our program.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.