MORGANTOWN - It was July and though practice hadn’t even started, Dana Holgorsen was tiring of suggestions his offense wouldn’t be the same in 2013 because of all the players it lost to the NFL draft.
“I haven’t lost any sleep,” the West Virginia coach said, knowing Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were in the NFL and another receiver and three offensive linemen were also gone from the starting lineup.
Well, it’s almost November and the season is nearly over, if not literally, then certainly competitively with a 12th straight bowl game sliding out of reach. Holgorsen is tired of losing and his 14th defeat in 34 games in charge of the Mountaineers changed the chorus.
“I’m losing sleep,” he said.
His defense caved in for a second straight game and allowed 28 unanswered second-half points a week after giving up 21 in a row. His offense was held pointless and looked hopeless in scoring no points and gaining only 145 yards in the second half of a 35-12 loss to a Kansas State. The Wildcats had been winless in the Big 12.
Holgorsen’s third team is 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big 12 and needs to win three of its final four games to be eligible for a bowl. If not, the Mountaineers will miss the postseason for the first time since 2001, Rich Rodriguez’s first season that ended with a 3-8 record.
“I probably gave ourselves a little bit too much credit,” Holgorsen said of his preseason prognostication. “I thought we could coach them up a little bit better and I thought our continuity would take care of itself just by playing together and practicing together.”
There are enough flaws on offense to make it hard to focus on one position or philosophy that deserves blame or needs to improve, but it’s easy to find a place to start. Eight games in, the Mountaineers are still searching for answers, and maybe even a starter still, at quarterback. Junior Clint Trickett started for the fourth straight time, but barely completed half of his pass attempts and turned the ball over two times.
Trickett had receivers leaping and lunging for passes, but also waiting for some and looking at others that missed their target. Trickett said it was “apparent” he wrestled with accuracy throughout the game.
“Not being in the system long enough only gets you so far,” offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson said. “The reality is the reason we’re not making those throws isn’t because you haven’t been in the system for a year or two years. You’ve got to make those throws.”
Trickett was benched in the fourth quarter following his second lost fumble. He was sacked in the third quarter and lost a fumble, but his defense got the ball back by forcing and recovering a fumble on the ensuing possession. The second turnover was critical. On third-and-5, Trickett scrambled and gained seven yards and tried to get away from a tackler. Trickett exposed the ball and senior all-conference safety Ty Zimmerman popped the ball out of Trickett’s arms.
The Wildcats (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) clinched the game five plays later with a touchdown pass for a 28-12 lead.
“In the first quarter, he slid and didn’t get the first down and all I told him was, ‘Look, if you’re going to run it, know where the sticks are and then get down. Don’t get down before that point,’ ” Dawson said. “The second one wasn’t anything other than him not holding onto the ball.”
Junior Paul Millard, who started the first two games and relieved Trickett at times during the first half against Baylor and then for most of the second half, played the final two drives against the Wildcats.
He was 4-for-14 and threw an interception. Combined with Trickett’s 15-for-28 stat line, WVU completed 45 percent of its passes and averaged only 6.3 yards per attempt.
Kansas State, predominantly a running team and split between a running quarterback and a passing quarterback, completed 18 of 21 passes and averaged 13.9 yards per attempt.
“It keeps me up at night,” Holgorsen said. “We’re not playing winning offensive football. Are we improving? Does it look better at times? Yes. Is it good enough to win Big 12 football games? Absolutely not.”
The Mountaineers didn’t say the competition between Millard and Trickett would begin again as they prepare for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. ESPNU game at TCU. Dawson said playing Millard was only an attempt spark the offense when down 28-12 with 7:31 remaining, but Holgorsen left no doubt somebody had to submit a better performance than what he saw against the Wildcats.
“We’ve got to be able to throw to open people and complete it and Clint was not doing a good job of that,” Holgorsen said.
Trickett sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder against Oklahoma State and it affected his throws against Baylor, when Trickett said he was numbed by medication, but still in pain. He said following the loss to Texas Tech that the shoulder wasn’t a concern. Against Kansas State, he had to hurry to the locker room to get checked out before WVU’s first possession in the third quarter.
“The frustration level is high,” he said. “I’m frustrated with myself. Obviously I’ve got to play better. I’m tired of, ‘Oh, well, he’s hurt.’ You’ve got to play better.”