By JOHN RABY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A coaching change and noticeable improvements on offense have yet to change West Virginia where it counts — in the win column.
The No. 25 Mountaineers are on the same slippery footing as a year ago.
Just as they did last season, the Mountaineers started 5-2 this year and with losses to LSU and Syracuse. And when they’ve had the chance to move into the top 10, the Mountaineers took a step backward.
West Virginia followed last year’s Syracuse loss by falling to Connecticut, effectively ending any championship hopes.
And though they have a standing invitation to join the Big 12, when West Virginia (5-2, 1-1 Big East) travels to Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) on Saturday, the Mountaineers will try to remain in contention for this year’s Big East title.
The Big 12 approved bringing in West Virginia to replace Missouri when the Tigers complete their move to the Southeastern Conference, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Coach Dana Holgorsen said he doesn’t have any dealings with conference realignment. Holgorsen said if he asked a school administrator about it, they would likely tell him to focus on Rutgers.
And he said that’s what the coaches and players have been doing.
The Mountaineers need to regroup and figure out how to fix the things that went horribly wrong in last Friday’s 49-23 loss to the Orange, a game that West Virginia had two weeks to prepare for.
“You’re just learning,” said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. “Every time you watch film, it’s like watching a movie. You always learn something new. You figure out something you could have done better and you use that as a kind of a mental note in the future.”
The Syracuse game had to be a horror film.
West Virginia’s players and coaches were left in a foul mood from the loss that sent the Mountaineers tumbling from last week’s No. 11 ranking.
“We better get better, or we’ll get another dose of it this week,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “That’s the bottom line.”
Holgorsen, who took over this season for the departed Bill Stewart, anticipated Syracuse’s blitz and wanted to take advantage of it.
But West Virginia’s receivers didn’t adjust their routes accordingly and the running backs couldn’t find the open field. Smith often was either hit while throwing or attempting hurried and off-balanced passes.
Smith still managed his fifth 300-yard passing game this season, but did so because West Virginia quickly fell behind and was desperate to generate offense.
In the two days after the game, Smith watched the Syracuse game tape as many as nine times with quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.
“He takes it pretty tough,” Holgorsen said. “He got the guys together after the game. It means something to him, which is what you want to see. The guys that go to the locker room after a loss, hurry up and get dressed, kid around and don’t have the look of a loss on their faces, that’s what you worry about. That’s what kills your football team. We had that happen to a few guys, which we addressed. Geno is a guy that it means an awful lot to.
“He’s going to bounce back and be the best that he possibly can be. He can only be the best that he can possibly be, and he can’t be anything more than that.”
The defense has some bouncing back to do, too, after allowing a season high for points.
The line got pushed off the ball time and time again, enabling Syracuse ball carriers to surge into the secondary, while quarterback Ryan Nassib threw four touchdown passes and found receivers wide open on missed defensive assignments.
“We took a beating, so you know, I don’t think anybody in the state of West Virginia is in a good mood,” Casteel said. “But when you don’t play good, that’s what happens.
“These kids better start stepping up and representing themselves. A lot of kids have not made plays here that are getting opportunities to make plays. Got to be a playmaker. When you get the opportunity to do it, go do it.”
From the defense’s perspective, the players have responded from the loss with intensity in practice this week.
“Coach (Casteel) has been really fired up, you know, not letting us forget about Friday,” said defensive end Bruce Irvin.