By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The second season begins this week for West Virginia.
After a 4-1 mark in the non-conference slate, the Mountaineers open the next phase of the season on Saturday, hosting Connecticut in Big East Conference action.
The Huskies (2-3) will tangle with the Mountaineers starting at noon. The Big East opener will be televised by WOAY-Channel 50.
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen wants to see Milan-Puskar Stadium full for the Huskies. He wasn’t pleased at the many empty seats last week for Bowling Green, and doesn’t accept rainy and chilly weather as an excuse.
“We have a conference game this week at noon. I can give you some excuses,” Holgorsen said. “We’re playing a team that’s 2-3, but should be 5-0. We’re playing at noon. Who cares? Get up.
“The Mantrip’s at 9:45 a.m. Are we going to have a good crowd or are we going to have nobody there? Is the weather going to be 85 degrees and sunny, or will it be 25 degrees and snowy?
“It doesn’t matter, because coaches and players and trainers and everyone else will be there. That’s what our job is, so what’s the support people’s job?”
While West Virginia wound up tied with Connecticut for the Big East title last season, the Huskies got the BCS bowl bid to the Fiesta Bowl, thanks partially to their 16-13 overtime win over the Mountaineers on their home turf.
“We’re excited to start Big East football. This is season No. 2. The first season is over, which was non-conference,” Holgorsen said. “We move on to Big East football and a good UConn team comes in here.
“Without having to use a bunch of motivational tactics this week, our guys realize that the game last year against UConn didn’t end up the way that they wanted it to.”
Holgorsen was at Oklahoma State when that game was played and probably wasn’t concerned about that result, but has watched the tape and has reminded his team of the many problems in what was the second of two straight defeats for the Mountaineers.
“I spent two hours on Sunday watching that game and how it went last year,” said Holgorsen, in his first season at West Virginia. “It was a tight game, turnovers were the difference.
“They’ve got a whole bunch of people coming back that were in that game and were able to go on to a BCS game. Our guys wanted that to happen to them last year and it didn’t, so I think that’s going to provide a little motivation for us to get in a good week of work.”
While West Virginia is 4-1, rebounding from a 47-21 loss to LSU to hammer Bowling Green 55-10, the Huskies are 2-3, having lost last week to Western Michigan — and former Bluefield High School standout Ansel Ponder — 38-31.
The Huskies also have losses to BCS clubs Vanderbilt (24-21) and Iowa State (24-20), with wins over Buffalo (17-3) and FCS foe Fordham (35-3).
“You look at UConn and take their record out of it,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve lost to three pretty good opponents. Vanderbilt is 3-1, Iowa State is 3-1 and Western Michigan is 3-1.
“They were close to winning all three of those games, so they could very easily be 5-0.”
West Virginia, which is ranked sixth in the nation in passing offense, got its running game on track in the rout of Bowling Green, led by freshman Dustin Garrison’s 291 yards in the 45-point win.
That doesn’t mean Holgorsen was happy about how that game transpired.
“Last week was disappointing, to be honest. Much like we talked about with our offense, our job is to be consistent every week and try to make it as good as we possibly can every week,” he said. “It’s our players’ and coaches’ expectation to do their very best every week.”
He also wasn’t real pleased with turnout. One week after selling out the stadium for LSU, only 46,603 showed up on a cold, rainy day to see the Mountaineers face the Falcons.
Holgorsen expressed his displeasure during a press conference on Tuesday.
“Two weeks ago, (LSU), it was easy (to play), then (last) week, we had all kinds of excuses not to play well,” Holgorsen said. “We had to cancel the Mantrip, we had bad weather, it was cold, it was wet, the environment was terrible.
“It was relatively early, didn’t respect the opponent, no matter what the excuses were, our players didn’t buy into it. But obviously our fan base did.”
Holgorsen isn’t one to accept the typical excuses that might be used for why West Virginia supporters didn’t come close to filling the stadium.
“So why did we have 20,000 less people out there for this one than (LSU)?,” Holgorsen said. “The funny part of it was we all were talking about it two weeks ago how much difference the fans and the crowds are going to make to the LSU people.
“LSU played well in front of 62,000 of our people and then turned around and went home and played a 1-4 Kentucky team at noon and had 95,000 fans. You want talk about an elite program, that's one. I don't know about this place.”
Never one to hold back on his opinions, Holgorsen spent the offseason traveling across the Mountain State, gauging the interest in the Mountaineers.
What he heard then and has learned since then haven’t meshed.
“I went in and beat the drum during the offseason. I found out how important our team is, how important our athletic department is, and our players and our coaches,” Holgorsen said. “I saw the level of support and how much we mean to the state of West Virginia.
“This is the NFL team here in town and hearing, ‘We’re going to be there to support you.’ Well, having 40,000 people at the game isn’t doing that.”
Holgorsen said the Mountaineers do their part each week to prepare for their next opponent. He wants to see West Virginia supporters doing the same.
“The only thing we can do about it is fix it,” Holgorsen said. “We do our best every week to fix what the problems are offensively, defensively and special teams-wise.
“Well, what’s everyone across the state of West Virginia, including the student body, doing to fix the fact that our players had to show up in the cold in front of 40,000 people.”
West Virginia has just seven home games on the slate, and Connecticut is the fifth, with only two more left on the season. Holgorsen said the chances are running out to see the Mountaineers.
“Whatever our expectations are with our players as far as preparing every week and going to the game and playing our best, I highly encourage our students and our support to take the same approach,” Holgorsen said. “You only get seven opportunities a year.
“What's so hard about it? Is it too cold? It wasn't too cold for our players, it wasn't too cold for our coaches, our managers and our trainers.”
While the West Virginia fans might have suffered from some complacency, possibly because of a lackluster schedule or poor weather, Holgorsen said that doesn’t apply to the Mountaineers themselves.
“I’m not too worried. That’s why we pay coaches to keep the team motivated. That’s our job and we’ll handle that,” Holgorsen said. “Our job is to be the same every week and continue to improve.
“One thing we talked about last week as far as what our job is and having a decent offense, our job is to improve, which I feel like we did. Not for the first five minutes, but we played fairly consistently for the game.
“To continue to try to improve is what our job is.”
—Contact Brian Woodson