MORGANTOWN - The most telling observation Dana Holgorsen made following West Virginia's 37-27 loss to Texas Tech Saturday afternoon was also the most obvious."It's a game we should have won,'' he said.Indeed, it was a game that perhaps the Mountaineers needed to win.Desperately.
There seems little question that West Virginia's schedule from here on out is significantly easier than what has come before it. Consider that the Mountaineers' four Big 12 opponents to date are a combined 24-2 after the weekend's games, during which they went 4-0. The five remaining opponents are 12-19, including an 0-3 mark over the weekend (two were idle).On the surface, perhaps that bodes well for a WVU team that is now 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the conference. After all, the only thing the Mountaineers are playing for is bowl eligibility, which would require a 3-2 record over the last five games. It should be easier to do that against five unranked teams with a combined 19 losses than it would be against the four Top 25 teams that are in the rear-view mirror.The trouble is, few if any of those remaining five games are gimmes.Kansas State, WVU's opponent at 3:45 p.m. Saturday in Manhattan, Kan., is coming off a bye week, the third - and last - Mountaineer foe with extra time to prepare. The Wildcats are just 2-4 and winless in three Big 12 games, but they are home and just held Baylor to half as many points (35) as anyone else has this season.A week later comes a game at TCU, WVU's only back-to-back road games of the season. The Horned Frogs are 3-0 at home and have had a fourth-quarter opportunity to win every game, including against ranked opponents LSU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.A home game against Texas on Nov. 9 at one point looked like a great chance to beat a dysfunctional team with a lame-duck coach. Then the Longhorns walloped Oklahoma and are - along with Texas Tech and Baylor - one of three teams unbeaten in league play.A game at Kansas Nov. 16 might be the next time West Virginia is favored. The Jayhawks have lost 24 of their last 25 games against FBS teams - the lone win over Louisiana Tech this year by a field goal - but WVU hasn't won a road game since last November at Iowa State. And Kansas stayed with Oklahoma Saturday until the final minutes.And finally there is the finale against Iowa State at home. West Virginia will be favored. But by that time it might not matter.
That's because getting two wins in the previous four games - in order to get to five and on the verge of bowl eligibility - is anything but a sure thing. And that's what makes Saturday's loss against Texas Tech so critical. The Mountaineers had a chance to win. As Holgorsen said, perhaps they should have won.But they didn't, which means a golden opportunity slipped away."In the fourth quarter, when we were up [27-16], we didn't have the will to want to knock them out,'' Holgorsen said. "They had the will to want to win more than we did. And that starts with me.''
Indeed, in addition to all the other things West Virginia needs to improve upon in order to have a chance to win more than it loses over the final five games and become bowl eligible, mentality appears to be in the mix.On Saturday, the offense began to look respectable, really for the first time this season. Even in what is West Virginia's signature win to date - a 30-21 victory over Oklahoma State - the offense seemed to succeed almost accidentally, not by design. Clint Trickett was making his first start and all but winged it and made a handful of big plays. It was the defense that scored one touchdown and set up two field goals with turnovers.The only other times the offense scored well this season came against horrendous Georgia State and after Baylor had lost interest. But against Tech, things were actually crisp.Or they were right up until the time the Mountaineers stopped playing with that 27-16 lead.Perhaps "stopped playing'' isn't right, though. Holgorsen insists that it's not a matter of trying, but instead an issue of sucking it up when things get tough."It's not the effort. The effort was there,'' Holgorsen said. "The will to win wasn't there.''
And that's something that will have to change if West Virginia is to have a chance at reaching the only goal that remains.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.