West Virginia not playing with confidence

West Virginia’s game Saturday against Texas Tech was played in three distinct phases so different from each other that it was hard to believe it was the same teams competing.

For the first quarter and a half, it appeared that Texas Tech would coast to an easy victory over the stagnant Mountaineers as the Red Raiders were driving for another score that would have extended their lead to 17. But a hard hit on Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb forced a turnover at the WVU 1. Instead of putting the game away, the next time Texas Tech ran a scrimmage play in the third quarter, it was staring at a 20-13 deficit.

From the turnover, West Virginia came to life and dominated for the next 15 minutes of playing time, as the Mountaineers drove 99 yards for a score and then tied the game after Texas Tech fumbled the ensuing kickoff. After halftime, West Virginia took the second half kickoff and drove the length of the field for a touchdown, yielded a field goal and went on another scoring drive to extend the lead to 27-16 with 4:36 remaining in the third quarter.

At this point in the game, WVU had not punted in seven possessions and Texas Tech was struggling on defense. It appeared that the Mountaineers were poised to pull off a second straight home upset of a ranked opponent.

But the momentum turned and the Red Raiders dominated the remainder of the game to preserve their unbeaten record with a 37-27 win. The stats for the remaining five possessions of each team tell the story: Texas Tech with 14 first downs, 274 yards, and 21 points. West Virginia with 1 first down, 33 yards, and no points. When the game was on the line, the Red Raiders did what good teams do and the Mountaineers what good teams don’t.

This game was a key turning point of the season. Another win over a quality team could have given WVU momentum going into the second half of the campaign. But instead West Virginia is now 3-4 and faces two back-to-back road trips followed by a home visit from Texas. And with the way the Mountainers collapsed on their home field Saturday in the fourth quarter, one wonders if this is a team that any longer believes it can win.

The postgame press conference from head coach Dana Holgorsen left one more confused after it was over than before it began. He spoke of “refusing” to make plays and not having the “will” to win, although he later clarified his remarks to say that he was not faulting the effort of his team. Perhaps what he intended to say was that one team was able to impose its will on the other. But when you are the face of the program words are important. Clarity matters.

Coach Holgorsen did acknowledge that not going for a field goal in the first quarter on fourth and 14 at the Tech 25 was a mistake.

Success in college football is primarily driven by quarterback play. When the WVU defense has faced teams struggling at the quarterback position (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State), it has performed reasonably well. But when going up against good passing attacks (Baylor, Texas Tech) it has been rather pathetic.

This Saturday: West Virginia travels to play Kansas State, the third Big 12 opponent to have a week off before playing the Mountaineers. The Wildcats have struggled in 2013, going 0-3 in the conference thus far, but being very competitive in 10-point losses to Texas and Baylor along with a 4-point defeat at Oklahoma State. Kansas State will be playing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd hungry for a win and with the Mountaineers’ confidence shaky this is not a good setup. Kansas State 34, West Virginia 16.