If West Virginia had time to think about the hand it’s been dealt, it would be easy to shut down and go into a state of depression.
Forty-one days after the Mountaineers jumped to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, WVU was walking off the field after a fifth straight loss, this one at the hands of Oklahoma, with a 5-5 record and questions about if it would even get the opportunity to play in a bowl game.
It wasn’t that long ago that West Virginia, with a road win on the road against Texas that improved their record to 5-0 overall, was being discussed not only by fans but by college football experts as a candidate for a trip to the BCS championship game.
The latest loss, a 50-49 defeat to the No. 13 Sooners, was another heartbreaker, the second home game in a row where the Mountaineers came up one point short, after dropping a 39-38 decision to TCU in double-overtime two weeks prior.
“All losses are pretty tough,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, admitting that the past few weeks have been some of the most difficult of his coaching career.
“I don’t know what else we could have done. We gave it everything we’ve got. The sideline energy was great; our kids played hard. The effort, energy and excitement was there. Our guys put a whole lot into it, and they didn’t get it done.
“(Oklahoma) made one more play than we did. It was tough on them, but all losses are fairly tough.
“Why’d it happen? I don’t know. When’s it going to end? I don’t know. The only thing we can do is get out there and work hard and put ourselves in position to win the next one.”
That next one comes just three days from now when WVU makes the trip to Ames, Iowa, for a Black Friday showdown with Iowa State (6-5, 3-5) at Jack Trice Stadium. The 3:30 p.m. contest will air live to a national audience on ABC.
The short week can often be a concern, especially for the road team, which has to spend one day traveling, but Holgorsen believes the short turnaround will actually benefit his team.
“We need to get back out there playing again,” he explained. “That’s why I’m excited about the short week. There’s no time to sit and ponder.
“Sunday night was a lot busier than normal Sunday nights. Normally, we’ve got some time to regroup and then spend all day Monday prepping. (Sunday) night we got the game over with and then spent the night prepping.
“There’s no time to ponder what-ifs. It’s a matter of getting out there and getting back to work.”
With two regular season games remaining, WVU still has a lot on the table. It needs at least one win — Friday against Iowa State or at home against Kansas on Dec. 1, announced Monday as a 2:30 p.m. kickoff — to become bowl eligible, and winning both could greatly improve its bowl situation.
Holiday Bowl officials at Saturday’s game indicated that if WVU could win out, it would be very high on that bowl’s list of possible Big 12 representatives.
Played Dec. 27 in San Diego, Cal., the Holiday Bowl has some tradition. It also could provide an intriguing matchup against the third selection from the Pac-12 — which could end up being a team like UCLA, Oregon, USC or Oregon State.
“We’re still playing for a lot,” said Holgorsen. “We’ve got 22 guys who have 12 days left in their college careers, unless we win one of the two and they can extend it to a bowl game.
“Bowl games are rewards. You get to a level where a bowl game is much more than a reward. We’re not at that stage right now. We’re at the stage where we’re playing for the betterment of the program.
“If we win a couple games, we get a good bowl game and we get to practice for another month. That helps the program.”
And despite the recent struggles, Holgorsen is confident that his team still has the ability to finish strong.
“There’s a difference in playing well and losing and being flat-out embarrassed,” said WVU’s second-year leader. “We’d have a lot to worry about right now if we weren’t playing with effort, if our kids weren’t excited to play.
“I don’t see that with this team right now. I see a team that is in some uncharted territory and not liking it, but learning to deal with it a little bit. Everything we asked them to do last week, we got.”
If WVU is focused and ready, the challenge then becomes dealing with ISU.
The Cyclones certainly don’t carry the national prestige of some of the teams the Mountaineers have faced in recent weeks, but Holgorsen said Paul Rhoads’ squad is dangerous.
Iowa State has quality wins over Iowa, TCU and Baylor already, and is coming off a 51-23 drubbing of Kansas on the road last week.
“Iowa State is a good football team,” said Holgorsen. “It’s every week in this conference, as our guys are finding out. Iowa State is a team that’s solid on all three sides of the ball.
“There’s nothing flashy about anything they do. When you look at their stats, nothing really jumps out to you. You watch them on film, nothing jumps out to you. It’s just a very solid, well-coached, effort-oriented team that is very technically sound and plays with a bunch of effort. They don’t beat themselves.”
That’s especially true on defense, where the Cyclones are third in the Big 12, allowing just 22.6 points per game.
“They’re stingy on defense, especially in the red zone,” said Holgorsen. “They give up yards, but they get real stingy in the red zone. They get you to turn it over.
“They change what to do. They start pressuring you and start beating you up a little bit.”
Holgorsen said it will be critical, especially with a WVU defense that is giving up more than 42 points per game, for the Mountaineers to score every time they get the opportunity — and not just field goals.
“We try to get touchdowns,” he said. “We’ve went for it probably more than we ever have on fourth down inside the red zone, because of the scores of the game.
“Typically, a lot of those times we’d kick field goals, because points are more important than touchdowns. But our play-calling is trying to get touchdowns.
“I think we’ve had 32 touchdowns out of 37 scoring drives in the red zone. We’ll need to get points in the red zone. Touchdowns would be appropriate, but points are important.
“We know what we’re going to do; we just have to execute.”
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cam Huffman is sports editor of The Register-Herald.