By JOHN RABY
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen called them “junior-high mistakes.”
Several gaffes on special teams have diverted some attention away from weekly breakdowns on defense during what has become the Mountaineers’ longest losing streak in 11 years.
After a 55-34 loss at Oklahoma State, the first thing Holgorsen did was set aside practice time this week to go over special teams basics. His hope is there’s no mass repeat when double-digit underdog West Virginia (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) faces No. 13 Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) on Saturday night.
“What’s sad about the special teams situation is obviously it was embarrassing,” Holgorsen said. “It was embarrassing lsat week and I sat here a week-and-a-half ago after (a loss to TCU) and I thought we played really well on special teams.”
Except for the punting of Tyler Bitancurt against Oklahoma State, “everything else was bad,” Holgorsen said.
The follies started in the first quarter when Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert made a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown look simple.
In the second quarter, a kickoff bounced off Andrew Buie’s helmet. Oklahoma State recovered at the WVU and eventually kicked a field goal.
Returner Tavon Austin signaled for his teammates to stay clear of an Oklahoma State punt early in the third quarter. The punt bounced off Austin, the Cowboys recovered at the West Virginia 12 and scored a touchdown for a 38-24 lead.
And in the fourth quarter, West Virginia was down 41-34 and poised to pin Oklahoma State deep in its own territory.
Nana Kyeremeh and six Mountaineer teammates surrounded a punt inside the 5-yard line. But Kyeremeh didn’t realize he was standing 2 yards deep in the end zone and his teammates couldn’t get to the rolling ball, resulting in a touchback.
“It’s all elementary stuff, so we worked on it,” Holgorsen said. “We put them in those positions, and we worked on it. Was it frustrating? Yes. Should we have to work on that? Yes, I guess we did. We kind of took some of that stuff for granted, which I take the responsibility for that.”
Having to answer many questions on internal issues rather than focusing on the opponent has become commonplace for a team that’s fighting for bowl eligibility after starting the season 5-0.
Holgorsen said the Mountaineers remain frustrated yet motivated to rescue the season.
“You start to lean on some of your seniors at this point to finish the year strong,” Holgorsen said. “When you start getting a couple of losses on top of each other, then that challenge becomes a little bit greater.”
West Virginia’s morale took another hit when backup wide receiver Ivan McCartney left the team this week, following last week’s departure of backup wide receiver Travares Copeland.
“The guys that are here are guys that want to be here,” Buie said. “We just need to keep pushing and keep going forward. We’re not quitters.”
It might take a near-perfect game on special teams — and elsewhere — to topple an Oklahoma team that can move into position for a possible Bowl Championship Series bowl berth with wins in its final three games.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” said West Virginia wide receiver and kick returner Stedman Bailey. “We’ve got some opportunities to let the world know we’re still here. We just want to try to take advantage of everything we can this weekend, and just get it done.”