Oklahoma State's Josh Stewart beats West Virginia defensive back Terrell Chestnut to the end zone for one of his three touchdowns.
STILLWATER, Okla. - Against all odds, a West Virginia football team that still can't stop anyone and plays horrid specials teams went into the fourth quarter of Saturday's game with Oklahoma State down just a touchdown and with a great chance to make things interesting.
Of course, the Mountaineers didn't. They seldom have over the course of the last month and as a result they now have a season on the brink of one of the most colossal collapses in college football history.
West Virginia lost its fourth straight game - that hasn't happened since Rich Rodriguez's inaugural 3-8 season of 2001 - falling 55-38 to the Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. A team that was once in the national title discussion at 5-0 and No. 5 in the nation still isn't even in the bowl discussion yet. WVU still has to win one of its final three games to become bowl eligible.
What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming reality.
"We just want to make sure we get to a bowl game,'' West Virginia wide receiver Stedman Bailey said after another disheartening loss. "I never imagined we'd be in this position.''
That the Mountaineers are is a result of what coach Dana Holgorsen repeatedly referred to as "junior high mistakes.'' It's hard to argue the point.
Special teams directly cost West Virginia 17 points. Defensive mistakes once again resulted in an opponent scoring or getting in position to score via big plays. Yet another quarterback - this time former third-teamer Clint Chelf - torched the Mountaineers, throwing for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Josh Stewart was made into a star with 13 catches for 172 yards and a 46-yard touchdown run on a reverse.
This time it was difficult to blame West Virginia's offense. Encouragingly, that group played as well as it had since that 5-0 start. While still not as crisp as he was earlier in the year, Geno Smith completed 36 of 54 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns. Bailey, healthy for the first time in a month, had a monster game with 14 catches for 225 yards. The Mountaineers ran 91 plays, gained 479 total yards and scored 34 points.
But it still pretty much came down to the same problem that has never been fully addressed. No matter how well the offense plays, it can all be undone by the defense and special teams.
"It's a team game,'' said defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, whose group did actually play better after a slow start, but couldn't make up for bad field position created by the special teams. "It shows once again how important all three areas are. And we're not playing well in all three.''
Trailing by just a touchdown going into the fourth quarter, the defense gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive, the offense gambled and lost on fourth down deep in its own end and OSU had no trouble pulling away.
It was apparent from the start that West Virginia's defense was going to have trouble containing the offense that Holgorsen installed here in 2010. The Cowboys went 78 and 68 yards on two of their first three possessions, getting touchdowns from Stewart on a 46-yard reverse and a 21-yard pass from Chelf. And the stop in there wasn't really a stop, but a dropped third-down pass.
To make matters worse, WVU's special teams gave up Justin Gilbert's Big 12-record fifth career kickoff return for a touchdown and fumbled a kickoff to give the Cowboys an easy 26-yard Quinn Sharp field goal. Chelf also hit a wide-open tight end Blake Jackson down the middle of the field for a 48-yard TD on a first-and-20 play to account for OSU's 31 first-half points.
For those thinking last week's performance against TCU was an encouraging sign, that's the same point total the Mountaineers gave up that afternoon in four quarters.
This time, though, the offense responded enough to keep things interesting, even if it did come in some bizarre forms.
WVU's first touchdown, for example, was thrown by Paul Millard. He had to come in for a play when Smith had his helmet come off during the previous play, and sat in the pocket forever before throwing a 37-yard score to Bailey in the end zone on a fourth-and-13 play.
The Mountaineers also got a 17-yard score on a wide receiver screen from Smith pass to Tavon Austin and a 41-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal set up by 30 yards of OSU penalties on a kickoff. But they also wasted a 16-play drive in the second quarter when they went for it on fourth-and-goal at the 2 and got nothing on a power-play run with Shawne Alston.
So OSU led 31-17 at halftime, but a 75-yard Smith-to-Bailey bomb began the second half for the Mountaineers and that put them in position to score on Smith's 9-yard pass to Ryan Nehlen. That cut it to 31-24 with most of the second half to play.
West Virginia might have had the ball with a chance to tie but for another special teams blunder. Austin signaled everyone to move away from an OSU punt that was going to hit the ground, and they did. He didn't. The ball bounced off Austin and was recovered by OSU, leading to a Chelf touchdown pass to Charlie Moore and a 38-24 lead.
West Virginia's defense, though, had been quietly holding Oklahoma State for most of the second half, giving up just the one touchdown on a 12-yard drive. Then Terrence Garvin made a big play, intercepting a tipped Chelf pass and returning it 42 yards to the 1, from where Smith scored on the next play to draw within 38-34. Sharp added another field goal, but it was a one-touchdown game going to the fourth quarter, 41-34, before it fell apart in the sea of mistakes.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.