To say that West Virginia experienced a tale of two seasons in 2012 would sell the drama of the year short. There were actually three different Mountaineer squads that took the field in different portions of head coach Dana Holgorsen’s second year in Morgantown.
The first was the one that drew national championship talk early in the season.
Coming off a 70-33 thrashing of ACC champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl in January, big things were expected of WVU in his first year in the Big 12.
In the early going, it looked as through WVU would live up to those lofty goals. The year started just as the previous season had ended, with an offensive display that left heads shaking and jaws dropping. WVU made a statement in the season opener, downing Marshall 69-34 in the final Friends of Coal Bowl for the foreseeable future.
The Mountaineers followed that up with wins over James Madison (42-12) and Maryland, and they opened Big 12 play in impressive fashion, knocking off No. 25 Baylor in front of a gold and blue striped Mountaineer Field crowd in an epic shootout, winning 70-63.
When WVU went into Texas and knocked off the No. 11 Longhorns in its first Big 12 road trip, it moved to No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, and the national title talk began.
That’s when something changed.
The weaknesses on defense finally caught up to the Mountaineers and its potent offense went missing during a trip to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders ended any thoughts of an undefeated season, winning 49-14 to drop the Mountaineers to 5-1.
WVU couldn’t stop the downhill momentum.
The Mountaineers were blown out again the next week, losing 55-14 to No. 4 Kansas State in Morgantown, losing 55-14, and even after an off week it wasn’t able to get back on track against TCU at home, blowing a lead in the final minute and then eventually losing in double-overtime 39-38.
A 55-34 road loss at Oklahoma State brought the losing streak to four games.
WVU’s offense was back in full force against Oklahoma, as Tavon Austin broke a Big 12 single-game record for all-purpose yards with 572 rushing for a school record 344 yards after moving to the tailback spot.
But the Mountaineers still couldn’t make a play when it needed it most, and the No. 12 Sooners escapted Morgantown with a 50-49 victory.
Now 5-5 and out of the polls, WVU was questioning everything, including its chances to make a bowl game, but the return of Shawne Alston from a thigh injury helped the Mountaineers pull out a 31-24 win on the road at Iowa State to become bowl eligible.
WVU ended with a bang, doing seemingly everything right in a 59-10 win over Kansas in the regular season finale, and it finished the year 7-5 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play, earning the spot in the Pinstripe Bowl.
West Virginia’s strengths: This one’s easy. When all the pieces are healthy, WVU might have the most potent offense in the country, averaging 41.6 points and 518.5 yards per game, both amont the top 10, nationally.
It starts with senior quarterback Geno Smith, who ended the regualr season with 4,004 passing yards, tossing 40 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He has two very reliable targets in junior Stedman Bailey — the school’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns, who finished the year with 1,501 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns — and Austin — the school’s all-time recepeptions leader, who caught 110 passes for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior.
All three will be playing their final game in a WVU uniform today.
The Mountaineer running game has also become much more dangerous with the return of Alston and Austin’s move into the backfield, at times.
West Virginia’s weaknesses: All that time working in practice against one of the country’s best passing attacks apparently hasn’t taught the WVU defense how to defend the aerial attack.
The Mountaineers finished the regular season ranked 119th out of 120 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing defense, giving up 327 yards per game through the air.
WVU is 107th in total defense, allowing nearly 470 yards per game, and 114th in scoring defense, giving up 38 points per outing.
Like the Orange, WVU struggled in the kicking game, as well.
Tyler Bitancurt ended the season handling both the punting and field goal duties, but he averaged just 39.4 yards per punt, 10th in the 10-team Big 12 and made only 11 of 18 field goal attempts with a long of 52 yards.
He also missed a pair of extra points, including a critical miss in the 1-point loss to Oklahoma.
Cam Huffman is the sports editor of The Register-Herald.