Dana Holgorsen watched the Mountaineers upset Oklahoma State Saturday in Morgantown.
MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen took more than one opportunity last week to insist that his West Virginia football team was not as bad as it seemed.
Chalk it up to simply being defensive, if you will. After all, Holgorsen is being paid a lot of money - $2.625 million this year and $14.525 million over this year and the next four, plus incentives - for coaching a football team that was 2-2 to start the season, 4-8 over the last 12 games and had just absorbed a 37-0 whitewashing at Maryland.
Being defensive under those circumstances is to be expected.
Turns out, though, that when Holgorsen swore that his team was "that close'' - thumb and forefinger an inch apart - to being a good one, perhaps he was being more than just self-protective. Perhaps he really believed it to be so.
And, well, if Saturday's performance against No. 11 Oklahoma State was a barometer, maybe he was right.
The Mountaineers didn't exactly shock the college football world with a 30-21 win over the Cowboys, but they certainly made a noticeable rumble. A team that couldn't seem to get out of its own way during most of the first four games of the season made a bit of a statement.
No, it wasn't that West Virginia is suddenly some sort of juggernaut. It was simply that the Mountaineers aren't a laughingstock. They are competitive and more than capable of playing with the best teams in the Big 12.
Just like Holgorsen insisted they were.
"I'm really proud of our team,'' Holgorsen said. "You can look at stats, but the bottom line is our team bought in and started playing.''
Holgorsen's team also got breaks. Good ones. And a lot of them.
In fact, it can be argued that as ugly as the game a week before against Maryland was, it actually wasn't much different than Saturday's against Oklahoma State. Hard to believe? Yes. But perhaps it's true.
Consider that in the loss at Maryland, the offense struggled to start with and the defense was actually fine for the most part, save for the awful spots it was put in by the offense. The special teams, meanwhile, were hot and cold.
Consider also that at Maryland, the special teams muffed a punt and lost it, setting up a Terps score, while Maryland muffed two punts but got the right bounces and recovered both. A big defensive play early by Maryland turned into a pick-six touchdown because of a fabulous play by the defender. Throw in field position and natural momentum and the Terps rolled to a lopsided win.
It could have been the same with Oklahoma State when WVU's offense struggled and turned the ball over early. The Cowboys already led 7-0 and three plays later had the ball at midfield on an interception.
This time, though, West Virginia's defense made a play when Ishmael Banks intercepted a pass two plays later and returned it for a dazzling touchdown. It can be argued if WVU manages to go on to have anything resembling a good season, that one play might have been the difference, given how it completely altered the complexion of the game.
That wasn't the only stroke of good fortune, though. Remember how Maryland literally got all the bounces on special teams - the fumbled punts by WVU and the Terps all bouncing into Maryland hands? Well, this time the bounces went the other way.
Oklahoma State punter Kip Smith, averaging 40.2 yards this season, shanked two on Saturday for 16 and 13 yards. They led to WVU's only two offensive touchdowns.
WVU kicker Josh Lambert hit the upright with a 45-yard field goal attempt, but got a second chance (because the sideline had called time) and made it. OSU's Ben Grogan hit the upright on a 23-yarder that would have tied the score in the fourth quarter. He didn't get a second chance and so it turned into a goal-line stand that defined WVU's defensive effort.
In other words, an inch to one side or a punt bounce that went the other way could have dramatically altered the flow of the game and perhaps the outcome. Even the replay reviews almost all went in WVU's favor, or at least weren't crucial when they didn't. When this season had that happened?
As much as Holgorsen appreciated that his team finally got some of those breaks this week, he also was quick to point out that sometimes getting those breaks isn't simply a matter of dumb luck.
"Everybody [told them], 'You got no breaks [at Maryland],'" Holgorsen said. "Well, this is how breaks work. If you play with a tremendous amount of effort and you try really hard [breaks will come]. And that's what we talked about. Maryland played with more effort. They strained harder than we did. And they got breaks because of it. It's not a coincidence.
"[Against OSU] I really felt like our guys played harder than they played. They played with more effort. They strained their bodies and we prepared hard. And if you do all that, then the breaks will come.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.