MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Motivation has been a point of emphasis this week for Dana Holgorsen where his West Virginia football team is concerned.And why not? The Mountaineers have free-fallen from national championship contenders to irrelevance within their own Big 12 Conference. In the throes of a four-game losing streak, West Virginia isn't even guaranteed to extend its 10-year bowl streak.So as the week wore on, Holgorsen invited a handful of past Mountaineers to town. Pat White is here. So are Bruce Irvin and others, perhaps as much to kick some lethargic tail as to inspire.Still, when West Virginia (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) hosts No. 13 Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) tonight at Mountaineer Field (7 p.m., Fox), inspiration and motivation will go only so far. There is still the execution part to deal with, and for the past four weeks the Mountaineers have been wholly lacking in that area.There is a defense that can't seem to stop anyone, an offense that no longer creates highlight-reel plays with any regularity and special teams that are exposed in different ways each week. Motivation goes only so far in correcting those."It's all about execution,'' said quarterback Geno Smith. "We know what we have to do. We've done it before. We have to start doing it again.''The good news, if there is such a thing, is that over the course of the last two weeks it seems as if progress has been made.The defense is no longer an automatic out. In lopsided losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State, those opponents essentially didn't need a punter, calling on them just once in each game. Kansas State had the ball 10 times and scored nine. Texas Tech scored on seven of its first 11 possessions and might have made it nine but for a missed field goal and a dropped pass that turned into a gift interception.But in losses to TCU and Oklahoma State, those teams punted 14 times and had 21 possessions that didn't end in scores. That's progress.
Offensively, West Virginia scored just three touchdowns and no field goals in the losses to Tech and K-State (another TD came on a kick return). In the last two weeks the Mountaineers have scored six times in each game, and for the first time in the slide WVU had a healthy Stedman Bailey, who accounted for 225 receiving yards. That's promising, as well.And though special-teams woes were probably the chief cause of last week's loss at Oklahoma State, there were even bright spots there. A week before, the snapping and kicking parts of the game were horrendous and that was corrected. As for the botched handling of punts and kickoffs, mere bad bounces actually played a significant role there.That's no excuse because part of the game is learning to deal with bad bounces, but it's at least an extenuating circumstance. Part of winning close games is getting some breaks and West Virginia got none of them in special teams.But as much progress as this team has made over the past couple of weeks, it's still not been enough. The defense still has its awful, inexplicable lapses in pass coverage when it matters most, the offense isn't nearly as crisp as it once was and the special teams seem to find a new way to look bad every week.Much of that you have to pin on coaching. There's no other way around it. If the defense can't execute the schemes the coaches have devised to stop the pass, well, someone had better devise a new scheme, one that at least mitigates the damage. If opposing defenses have figured out how to stop big plays then the offensive coaches have to counter with something else. And attention to detail has to be a priority with special teams.Perhaps significant progress has been made in those areas, and perhaps the only missing ingredient now is inspiration or motivation. Maybe guys like White and Irvin and Julian Miller can provide some of that.
It certainly can't hurt.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.