MORGANTOWN — Last season, West Virginia’s football team held a lead in 10 of its 12 games.
The Mountaineers held fourth-quarter advantages in seven of those 12 games and were within one possession — six points once, two another — going into the fourth quarter of two others.
Even discounting a complete and inexplicable flop at Kansas, in which WVU was never in contention during an otherwise easily winnable game, that’s nine of 12 games in which it seemed Dana Holgorsen’s team had not only a chance to win, but a great chance.
And yet the Mountaineers won just four of them.
Suffice it to say, finishing what it starts is being talked about a lot as West Virginia heads into a 2014 season that begins in eight days in Atlanta against No. 2 Alabama. Among the myriad slogans that appear on wristbands, hats and locker room walls in every college football program, the ones that probably get to the point most efficiently at West Virginia are the T-shirts that say just that.
“We focused on that, yes,’’ said Holgorsen, beginning his fourth season at WVU. “That’s one of our goals that we’ve talked about with the coaches and the players. One of them is to get better at finishing. That was frustrating last year. It’s frustrating for myself and the team when you sit in the locker room after losing an overtime game or losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. We’ve focused on that since January.
“Not only have we focused and talked about it, we’ve done specific drills where we work on finishing things — finishing pre-reads, finishing practices, finishing reps. It’s something coaches say a good bit around here.’’
Holgorsen likes to talk about how last year compares to his first, 2011, in which the Mountaineers finished 10-3 and won the Orange Bowl in a blowout over Clemson. Yes, there are distinct differences, not the least of which is that in order to get to that BCS bowl WVU had to win the watered-down Big East, not the Big 12. But the similarities are also striking in terms of how the Mountaineers finished.
In 2011 they did. In 2013 they did not.
“There were a lot of close games that year, too. We had some experienced guys and some talented guys that were able to close those games out the appropriate way,’’ Holgorsen said. “We had young guys last year that weren’t able to close those games out the appropriate way.
“I’ve taken the blame for all of it, but you can blame it on the lack of continuity with coaching staffs or turnover or whatever it is. The ball just didn’t bounce our way, and we didn’t close it out.’’
Indeed, that 2011 team, after starting 5-1, appeared to be going nowhere as the season hit the second half. There was a blowout loss on a Friday night at Syracuse and a close loss at home to Louisville that seemed to doom any conference title hopes.
But in between those two losses, West Virginia rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Rutgers in a snow storm, then put together a highly improbable three-game win streak to end the season. The Mountaineers trailed in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida — all but Pitt on the road — yet still managed to find a way to win by a combined seven points.
Even then, it took a series of other results falling into place in order for the Mountaineers to earn the BCS bid, but in 2011 all of those things fell into place.
Last year, none of them did.
Holgorsen famously said of those frustrations that it was “better than getting our ass kicked,’’ but it was also much worse than finding a way not to lose those games at all. That’s why finishing is being stressed so much.
“We’re in a good conference, so there’s going to be close games,’’ Holgorsen said. “It’s the beauty of the situation that we’re in with the Big 12. We’re going to be prepared for close games. We’re going to be in them and we need to use our experience and things that we’ve been through and the motivation to close those games out.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.