LSU's Morris Clairborne (17) returned a punt for a touchdown against West Virginia Saturday night.
MORGANTOWN - It was the wee hours of Sunday morning, just past midnight Saturday, and West Virginia was already looking forward.And why not? It was a whole lot preferable to looking back."We're going to get past this. We're going to make it our job,'' quarterback Geno Smith said. "Our goal to be undefeated, that's gone down the drain. But being Big East champs and winning every game from here on out is what we have to do. And that's something I'm going to work extremely hard to do.''Smith was talking in the wake of an evening in which he and the Mountaineers had already put in 31/2 hours of extremely hard work. In the end, though, it didn't pay off.Yes, the Mountaineers showed what they could do offensively. They rolled up 533 yards and 28 first downs against what is on the very short list of the country's best defenses. They were a touchdown away from taking the lead, 27-21, as the third quarter was roughly 60 seconds from becoming the fourth.And, too, Smith had what amounted to PlayStation numbers throwing the football. He was 38-for-65 for 463 yards, all school records.But in the end, way too many mistakes were impossible to overcome. And so four turnovers and abhorrent special team play were the difference in a 47-21 loss to an LSU team that afterward moved from No. 2 to No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings.
Yes, there were encouraging signs for WVU. But a Mountaineer Field crowd of 62,056 - a record for the stadium since its luxury-box configuration in 2004 - and a prime time television audience, while wowed by Smith and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and the rest of the offense, also saw as plain as a high-definition replay the things the Mountaineers need to work on.And so did Dana Holgorsen."It came down to two things - turnovers ... [and] they were a lot better than we are at special teams,'' West Virginia's first-year head coach said.In other words, it's not rocket science trying to figure out what Holgorsen and the Mountaineers will work on most heading into Saturday's final non-conference game of the season, a 3:30 p.m. contest against Bowling Green (3-1) at Mountaineer Field.
"We definitely could have won the game,'' said Austin, who outdid his 11-catch, 122-yard performance against Maryland a week earlier with 11 more catches for 187 yards. "I mean, four turnovers? They had zero turnovers. If we don't turn the ball over it's a different game.''Indeed, how does a team gain 533 yards, 28 first downs and have only one three-and-out in 15 possessions and score just three times? Well, it happens when four of those possessions - three of which had reached into or near LSU territory - end in two fumbles and two interceptions. Brad Starks was stripped of a reception and Smith dropped a snap from center and threw two interceptions. One was a bullet that bounced off Austin's helmet and the other, just seconds before halftime, resulted in an LSU touchdown when Tyrann Mathieu batted a screen pass into the air, caught it and returned it to the 1-yard line."We moved the ball. We did everything right. But we turned the ball over,'' Smith said. "If you eliminate those turnovers and we don't give those easy points up, it might be a different game. But that's the way it is. You've got to move past it and get better."I wish I could take some things back, but that's the way it goes. You just have to press forward and get better from all your mistakes.''
Those mistakes, of course, were not limited to the offense. Defensively West Virginia gave up 366 yards and 47 points, the most by a WVU team since the 2002 Mountaineers gave up 48 to both Virginia (in a bowl game) and Maryland. Yes, the offense contributed by allowing short fields with the turnovers, but LSU also converted 8-of-16 third downs, rushed for 186 yards and didn't allow a sack.Special teams were a disaster, from the 99-yard Morris Claiborne kickoff return that changed the game - just moments after WVU scored to pull to within 27-21 - to both punt and punt-return gaffs. LSU punted six times and all six times pinned West Virginia inside its 10 yard line, four times at or inside the 5. And a WVU team that went into the game - and then came out of it - ranked dead last in net punting was even worse. Corey Smith shanked two punts and boomed two others.Holgorsen later admitted he would look at punting options this week, saying that "hitting a 60-yarder and then hitting a 10-yarder, that's not going to get it done.''Still, the overall frame of mind was positive despite the loss."I learned that we're going to fight no matter what,'' Smith said when asked what he took away from the game. "Also, as long as we don't shoot ourselves in the foot we can play with anybody.''BRIEFLY: If LSU was impressive enough to move up to No. 1 in the AP rankings (and tied for No. 2 in the coaches' poll), it stands to reason that the team the Tigers beat would not fall far. And WVU didn't fall out of the rankings, dropping from No. 16 to No. 22 in the AP poll and No. 23 in the coaches' rankings.
In addition to net punting, WVU is also near the bottom of national statistical categories in sacks (No. 117) and turnover margin (No. 100). On the other end, the Mountaineers are third in passing offense, Smith is No. 4 in total offense and Austin is second in all-purpose yardage.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org