A Lot Good, But A Couple of Awfuls For WVU
West Virginia head football coach Dana Holgorsen said he “didn’t see anything awful” in West Virginia’s 31-24 loss to Virginia Tech on Sunday night. For the most part, that was true. Although the Mountaineers came up short on the scoreboard, there was a lot to like, and a lot to be encouraged with, in the loss. However, there were two items that belong in the “awful” category, and, if unfixed, will cost WVU more games this year, just as they did against the Hokies.
The first was the Mountaineer special teams. While WVU didn’t yield a kick block (and that’s a victory, to be sure), it did nothing else on special teams. Ranging from neutral to really bad, these shortcomings cost the Mountaineers big-time.
Somehow, punt returns have regressed from a year ago, when the Mountaineers averaged just 1.85 yards per return. WVU had just one punt that it did not either fair catch or let bounce, and that resulted in a three-yard loss.
The “let bounce” was a killer. On a punt with just more than four minutes to go in the first half, West Virginia was pinned back at its own three-yard line after failing to catch a Tech punt. Three plays later, a short 35-yard Mountaineer punt set Tech up at the WVU 47, from where it drove for a touchdown in the half’s final minute. Catch the initial punt, and get off a good one of its own, and West Virginia likely goes into halftime with the lead, not trailing.
Overall, WVU’s punting was average at best. Punter Billy Kinney hobbled off the field more than once, so injury may have played a part, but if that were the case then perhaps a backup should have been employed. In any event, he averaged just 38.2 yards per kick, and only two of those were inside the 20-yard line. In the meantime, Tech was flipping the field with a 46.5-yard per kick average. That’s an eight-yard gain of field position for every exchange.
Tech also owned the kickoff arena. It Joey Slye blasted each of his six kickoffs into or out of the end zone, and didn’t allow a single Mountaineer return. (It was a bit humorous to see WVU switch kick returners in and out, as if that might change the trajectory of Slye’s boots.) There wasn’t anything funny on the reverse though, as WVU put one kickoff out of bounds and gave up a 44-yard return on another. That runback, combined with a personal foul WVU after the play, allowed Tech to bounce right back after West Virginia had tied the game at 17-all. It only took the Hokies one play to score from the Mountaineer 32-yard line, and put momentum right back on the de facto home team’s sideline.
About the only failure for Tech was a pair of missed field goals, which certainly loomed large in the game’s final moments, but overall it would be tough to score this as anything but a TKO for the Hokies.
The second awful occurrence? Head coach Dana Holgorsen’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Unlike the errors listed above, this one is totally inexcusable. Holgorsen knew he would be a focal point for officials after his tirade in the Texas game last year was used as an illustrative point during Big 12 Media Days in July. In that session, supervisor of officials Walt Anderson joked, “We’re going to have to talk with Dana about this one.” Later, Holgorsen said he understood the new rules, but also said it was as much about keeping the sidelines clear as it was about coaching decorum.
In this game, though, it clearly was about the latter. Holgorsen yelled and waved his arms several times after WVU was flagged for an out-of-bounds hit on a Virginia Tech kickoff return, and it’s likely the only thing that saved him from a flag there was that he didn’t range out onto the field. Still, that sequence probably remained in the mind of the official on his sideline that flagged him for being on the field later in the quarter – this one following a holding call that negated a WVU first down. So, instead of facing a still-makeable third and 11 from the 33, the offense now had 26 yards to cover from the 48. One deep incomplete prayer later, and the Mountaineers were punting instead of trying a field goal, or perhaps going for a fourth-down conversion.
Holgorsen said that he was not arguing the holding call when he got the penalty, but that he “stepped out of the box”, and that he didn’t understand what he did to anger the official. Those statements may well be true, but he did himself no favor with the previous episode, and he has to know that the point of emphasis on coaching decorum and staying off the field would be a priority for officials in game one.
There’s no sugarcoating either of these items, no matter how encouraging other aspects of play were – and, as noted previously, there were many. West Virginia has talent, but no so much that it can overcome massive mistakes like these. And until they are lessened, as is the hope for the special teams issues, or eliminated, as should be the goal for penalties on the head coach, WVU will have an uphill battle to defeat quality teams.