Final three games pivotal for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN-Coming off of an emotional overtime victory over Texas Christian University (30-27) head coach Dana Holgorsen and his Mountaineers entered the final third of their second Big 12 campaign with a 4-5 mark, but hopes that victories in two of their final three games-Texas, Kansas, and Iowa State-would be enough to keep WVU’s bowl chances alive for yet another season.

Overtime losses to the Longhorns (47-40) and Iowa State (52-44 3OT) as well as a 71-19 setback to a Jayhawks’ program that had not won a Big 12 contest in its last 27 tries doomed the old gold and blue to its first losing record since 2001 and kept Mountaineer fans at home during the bowl season.

A similar scenario could occur in 2014 as West Virginia closes out its season with road games at Texas (Nov. 8) and Iowa State (Nov. 29) and plays host to Kansas State over the Thanksgiving holiday (Nov. 20).

TEXAS, Saturday, Nov. 8: The Longhorns return a number of key players from the team that came to Milan Puskar Stadium a year ago and came away with a 47-40 overtime victory. However, one of them won’t be veteran head coach Mack Brown.

Taking over the reigns in Texas will be someone familiar to Mountaineer fans from his days at the University of Louisville-Charlie Strong.

“I don’t ever get angry,” said Strong following spring drills. “I just get mad. Just overall, we still have some work to do. I wish I had 15 more days, but I don’t have them. When we get to fall camp, we need to get to work and put a product out there that is being consistent.”

Strong will have some experience to work with as Texas returns seven starters on offense and nine on defense. Tops among those will be quarterback David Ash, running backs Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron and wide receivers Jaxon Shipley and Daje’ Johnson.

“Your team isn’t going to go until your quarterback goes,” continued the coach. “So we have to get better there. We’re all concerned about the quarterback position. You just make sure the positions around him play well enough and once we’re able to get that position going we’ll be pretty comfortable.”

Ash, who passed for 760 yards and seven touchdowns, missed most of last season with a concussion and then missed the second half of the spring with a broken foot. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes proved inconsistent in the spring and freshman Jerrod Heard will be the only other signal-caller in camp challenging for the starting job.

Also coming back from injury is Gray, who rushed for 780 yards and four touchdowns before injuring his Achilles in the win over WVU.

Defensively, the Longhorns must improve on their 25.8 points and 407.2 yards of total offense if Texas is to improve upon its 8-4 overall mark (7-2 in Big 12) and 30-7 loss to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.

KANSAS STATE, Thursday, Nov. 20: As Season 6 of the Bill Snyder Era II approaches, not much has changed or is changing in Manhattan. The Wildcats usually finish higher than predicted and their veteran head coach usually spends the spring and summer worrying about how his team will compete in a Big 12 Conference loaded with offensive talent.

“I have some of the same concerns as last year,” Snyder said following spring drills. “My concerns center around being consistent week in and week out, day in and day out and repetition after repetition.

“My number two concern is that we do not take ourselves for granted. We always talk about not taking an opponent for granted, or anything else in life, and certainly not taking our own performance for granted.”

The Wildcats certainly have some holes to fill, especially on the offensive front where tackles Cornelius Lucas and Tavon Rooks and guard Keenan Taylor are gone as well as leading rusher John Hubert and wide receiver Tramaine Thompson.

Hubert, who finished fourth in the Big 12 with 1,048 yards and 10 TDs, pounded the Mountaineer prevent unit for 86 yards and one touchdown while Thompson pulled in one of three Jake Waters’ touchdown passes in the game.

Defensively, Snyder and his staff have their work cut out for them having only four returning starters to work with in 2014. Tops among those are safety Ty Zimmerman and linebacker Blake Slaughter.

One player to keep an eye out for is junior linebacker Charmeachealle Moore.

“He has progressed,” said Snyder. “He still has an awful lot of improvement to make, but he has been reasonably consistent in the improvement that he has made, the knowledge he has of our defense and being able to react to things in a reasonable fashion.”

IOWA STATE, Saturday, Nov. 29: If there was one single game that displayed the dysfunctional behavior that was the Mountaineer team in 2013, it was Iowa State’s 52-44 three overtime victory at Milan Puskar Stadium.

The offense, behind Clint Trickett, produced more than 500 yards of total offense and had built a 38-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. Two Grant Rohach touchdown passes and a 31-yard Cole Netten field goal pushed the game into extra periods and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rohach, who threw for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns, returns as does another name familiar to Mountaineer fans-Sam Richardson, who threw for 1,397 yards and 11 TDs a year ago. In fact veteran head coach Paul Rhoads returns 11 starters on offense as he attempts to return the Cyclones to the postseason after a one year absence.

“I think this team is hungry,” said Rhoades following the spring. “There isn’t anything about the gains we’ve made that’s disappointing.”

To improve in 2014, however, ISU must find replacements for five defensive starters. Tops among that list is linebacker Jeremiah George and safeties Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield.

Making the task of rebuilding the unit a bit more difficult were the dismissals of defensive tackle Rodney Coe and defensive end David Irving. The play of defensive ends Cory Morrissey and Mitchell Meyers could go a long way in helping the Cyclones overcome those losses.

PREDICTION: A year ago, West Virginia needed two wins in its final three games to lock down its 12th straight bowl appearance. The overtime loss to Texas at home, however, sent the team on a downward spiral that witnessed the Mountaineers becoming the first team to lose a Big 12 contest to Kansas in four years.

WVU’s three overtime loss against ISU wasn’t only predictable, but it showed that the team had given up.

History could very well repeat itself in 2014. A 4-5 mark heading into the final three games of the season is very realistic. But can Holgorsen and his staff get this year’s team to finish on a high is the question that won’t be answered until the final whistle blows at ISU.

It won’t be easy. Texas has athletes, but the Longhorns’ defense has been proven to be as porous as West Virginia’s so a victory isn’t out of the realm of possibility. A loss, however, sends the old gold and blue back home to tangle with a Kansas State team that has displayed the ability to defend against Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack.

Again, a victory is possible. But, so then, is a loss.

Leaving the possibility of a repeat scenario when WVU heads to the Midwest to take on Iowa State.