MORGANTOWN - This was supposed to be the week the Big 12 football championship was decided.It won't be, of course, or at least not in Morgantown.While upstart Kansas State tries to continue its march not only to the league championship but the BCS title game, neither preseason No. 1 Oklahoma nor West Virginia, the runner-up in the summer poll of the Big 12 media, has lived up to expectations.They meet in just the kind of setting that the preseason forecasts predicted - a Saturday night game at Mountaineer Field on national television - but Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) is out of the national title hunt predicted by a preseason No. 4 ranking and West Virginia (5-4, 2-4) is just plain out.
Oh, the Sooners are still good (No. 13 in the Associated Press poll, one spot higher in the BCS rankings) and still have visions of a BCS bowl berth (at-large if not automatic). But home losses to Kansas State and Notre Dame might still define their season.West Virginia? The definition of its season is apparently still in the works. It is no doubt that a team that began the season 5-0 and with a Top-5 ranking and the Heisman Trophy favorite ultimately fell off a cliff. But will it be with a four-game losing streak, a five-game skid or perhaps more?It has reached four now after last Saturday's 55-34 meltdown at Oklahoma State and the Sooners are a double-digit favorite to make it five. All of which leaves second-year WVU coach Dana Holgorsen fighting just to keep his team interested, much less competitive.
"That's kind of your goal every week, to get your guys ready to play, to get your guys excited to play,'' Holgorsen said. "You start to lean on some of your seniors at this point to finish the year strong."We're still fighting for the same thing we were a week ago or a couple weeks ago, which is just to try to get better each week. Try to win the game, try to improve your bowl status and try to figure out why we play this game that we love. That's a challenge every week. And when you start getting a couple of losses on top of each other, that challenge becomes a little bit greater.''In recent weeks, Holgorsen's tack, in part at least, has been to motivate through playing time. Two weeks ago, he revamped his defensive player rotation, going with backups - and in some cases walk-ons or former walk-ons - in an effort to both find new energy and perhaps light some fires in those who sat.In Stillwater on Saturday, he did the same on offense, most notably at receiver. Redshirt freshman Connor Arlia and fifth-year senior Ryan Nehlen played early, often and rather successfully. Arlia caught three passes for 25 yards, including a diving sideline catch to convert a third down. Nehlen caught four passes for 26 yards and just the second touchdown of his career.
"We're looking for bodies that play with a tremendous amount of effort and it means a lot to them,'' Holgorsen said. "We will continue to look for guys that bring effort, bring energy and get out there and play hard because playing the game of football means a lot to them.''They are playing, though, at the expense of players with more natural talent, at least two of whom are no longer on the team. Freshman Travares Copeland left last week and on Monday Holgorsen confirmed - via a one-paragraph press release - that junior Ivan McCartney had left the team. McCartney only a week earlier was a starter, but was left at home for the trip to OSU.And while there is far more to West Virginia's current slide than just attitude, Holgorsen seems convinced that improving that aspect of the game must be a precursor to any technical improvements. He said he has seen some improvement after altering somewhat his approach with the team.It wasn't a matter of making big changes or trying dramatically new things, but rather an attitude adjustment.
"It's more about trying some new things from a mentality standpoint as far as getting the guys ready to play and getting them excited to play,'' Holgorsen said. "I think we accomplished that last week. It didn't turn out good, but our approach was good and I think our energy going into the game was good. We didn't start the game very good but we played OK.''And now, with four losses in a row, a Top 25 team coming to town and bowl eligibility still unsecured?"I think we're fine. Not happy, but still motivated,'' Holgorsen said. "I thought our approach last week was good, thought our effort last week was good. I expect it to be the same way this week. I mean, it better be. We've got a good Top 10 team coming to Morgantown and it's going to be on national TV. We've got to play good.''BRIEFLY: Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have both been named semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's best receiver.
There are just 10 and Austin and Bailey are the only teammates on the list. The others are Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, Austin Franklin of New Mexico State, Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas, Austin Hill of Arizona, Deandre Hopkins of Clemson, Marqise Lee of Southern California, Quinton Patton of Louisiana Tech and Terrance Williams of Baylor.The three finalists will be announced next Monday and the winner on Dec. 6.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.