MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen is fond of saying his West Virginia football team is a work in progress. Well, in at least one way, the Mountaineers seemed to make a lot of progress between losing at Syracuse and nearly losing at Rutgers the past two weekends.They learned, at least for this week, not to underestimate the underdog, especially one that appears to be playing with more naturally generated motivation.Syracuse was offended at being a two-touchdown underdog at home to a team it beat on the road a year ago and seemed further ticked off by a perceived nonchalant - or even superior - attitude by the Mountaineers prior to the game. The Orange crumpled WVU up and threw it away, winning 49-23.But Rutgers had perhaps even more motivation, and the Knights and coach Greg Schiano all but admit as much. They had lost 16 straight to WVU and were playing the Mountaineers for perhaps the last time. Paralyzed defensive lineman Eric LeGrand led the team onto the field in a wheelchair. Even a freak snowstorm worked in Rutgers' favor against WVU's precision-based offense.
Shoot, Schiano made defensive changes during the offseason designed to get quicker players on the field, even at the expense of defending against power football. Linebacker Khaseem Green was asked last week how many of those changes he figured were aimed at being able to better defend West Virginia."I would say probably all of them,'' Green said.Yet with all of that working for them - not to mention a crowd announced at 47,303 and a 10-point halftime lead - Rutgers still couldn't do anything in the end but mark down consecutive loss No. 17."Credit goes to West Virginia,'' Schiano said after his own losing streak against WVU reached 11. "They found a way to get it done. We didn't. We will eventually.''Well, not if West Virginia is successful in bailing out of the Big East for the Big 12 by next fall. And that will happen.When it does, chances are good that Rutgers' losing streak against West Virginia lives in perpetuity. Perhaps there will be a non-league game somewhere down the road, but no one will hold their breath - or their schedules - waiting for that.From West Virginia's point of view, though, extending the winning streak over Rutgers was only peripheral motivation. Simply winning the game and overcoming its own foibles was what mattered most.At some point the Mountaineers had to start playing like the team that, since starting 7-0 and rising to No. 3 in the polls in 2006, has been favored in virtually every Big East game it has played, yet over that same period is just 25-11 in the league. Yes, that's the best league record over that span, but almost all of those losses were upsets.Syracuse was no different. Rutgers was heading the same way when it led 31-21 at halftime. Perhaps something clicked."We had to look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we wanted to do,'' said receiver Brad Starks.The second half, of course, was different. It was what is expected of West Virginia and has been for years now. Rutgers gained just 165 yards in the second half, didn't score and the Mountaineers won.
"This is our last year playing in the Big East. I told the guys who don't realize it, this is the last time we're playing Rutgers,'' linebacker Najee Goode said. "This is what they're going to remember. When they think back to who the last Big East champs were [during WVU's time in the league], we want it to be us.''The problem for West Virginia is that this might have been the easy part of the schedule. Saturday brings a home game against a Louisville team that last week beat Rutgers and on Saturday pounded the same Syracuse team that just pounded West Virginia.A week later there's a trip to Cincinnati to play what is now the only unbeaten team in the league, then the season ends with the Backyard Brawl against Pitt and a trip to South Florida, where WVU always struggles.For one week, though - or at least one half - West Virginia found its answer in regard to playing hard and playing well at the same time. It was one of the few times the Mountaineers have managed that combination, but if they expect to win the Big East it had better not be the last.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org