Dana Holgorsen's Mountaineers need three wins in the last five games to nail down a bowl berth.
MANHATTAN, Kan. - A week ago today, West Virginia fairly imploded late in a game against Texas Tech, gave up a double-digit lead in the last 20 minutes and lost a game that was well within its grasp. Afterward, Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen rather confusingly praised his team's effort while citing as a cause for the meltdown an absence of a "will to win.''
It was confusing, of course, because the two would seem to go hand in hand.
"They do go hand in hand,'' Holgorsen said of effort and the will to win. "And I've not questioned anything our players have done from the effort point of view, from doing what we're asking them to do on and off the field.
"They just got exposed a little bit in the fourth quarter because it was such a pressure situation.''
Ah, now there perhaps is the difference. It's one thing to want to win and give the effort to win. It's quite another to have the ability to transfer that into a win when the pressure is on.
It's something the Mountaineers haven't been exposed to much this season - late-game pressure. It was there in a game against Oklahoma State and the Mountaineers handled it well. It was present in a game at Oklahoma and things didn't turn out well.
But aside from a bit of unexpected pressure at the end of the opener against William & Mary, WVU's other games have been blowouts one way or the other. So handling late-game pressure isn't something with which West Virginia has had much experience.
The Mountaineers had better get used to it, though, because there would seem a very good chance that how they handle it over the final five games of the season will dictate whether they succeed in winning the three games necessary to salvage a bowl trip. They won't be overwhelming favorites or prohibitive underdogs in many, if any, games. So handling pressure will be important.
It begins today, when West Virginia (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) faces Kansas State (2-4, 0-3) at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. If the Mountaineers have a chance to win this one in the fourth quarter, they will have to do it in front of a sellout homecoming crowd rooting for the other team.
Texas Tech handled that situation a week ago in Morgantown, which is one of the reasons the Red Raiders are 7-0 and WVU is 3-4.
"We obviously wanted to win that game. It meant a lot to us,'' Holgorsen said. "And then we got into the fourth quarter and they made more plays than we did. I phrased it that they wanted to win a little bit more than we did, and if you watched it they made more plays in the fourth quarter under pressure than we did.''
In some ways, reacting poorly to pressure last week was perhaps a result of what had come before for the Mountaineers. The last time they played before that game was when they were shellacked by Baylor, losing 73-42 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as even the 31-point margin might suggest.
Does a loss like that play with the confidence that's obviously needed to handle late-game pressure situations?
"Yeah, it does,'' Holgorsen said. "Confidence is a hard thing to build. And then when you have it shattered by Baylor - who is making a habit of doing it to a lot of people evidently - then it's hard to get it back.
"That's what we've got to do as coaches.''
If success breeds confidence, well, it would figure that Kansas State has no more than West Virginia. The Wildcats have lost three games in a row. They were beaten at home in the opener by an FCS school, North Dakota State. The only wins K-State has this season are against Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass.
There is, though, what would seem a significant difference between KSU and WVU in that the Wildcats have been competitive against everyone, including Baylor.
In fact, the last time Kansas State played -K-State was idle last week - it led Baylor 25-21 going into the fourth quarter. The Bears eventually won, but outgained the Wildcats by only a yard and led only by a field goal in the final two minutes.
In contrast, Baylor scored on 10 of its first 11 possessions against West Virginia, gained 864 yards and the game wasn't close after a 7-7 tie. Kansas State has been in every one of its losses in the fourth quarter, including the three straight Big 12 defeats to Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
"They've clearly been in all three games and had a chance to win all three,'' Holgorsen said. "Ours last week, we just didn't make plays in the key situations. Some of that is just confidence and not having been there enough.''
Kansas State has been there, so how West Virginia responds if it finds itself in a close game as time ticks down could be the difference.
"When the game's on the line, it's an obvious high-pressure situation,'' Holgorsen said. "And we've got to do a better job of handling that high-pressure situation and making the plays to be able to win games.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.