Over the next few months, we will run a series of articles recapping the Dana Holgorsen Era in West Virginia Mountaineers’ history. The series will culminate in a review of Holgorsen’s recruiting and draft successes and failures. To begin, however, we will look at the top five wins of the Holgorsen era. We will look at these games in chronological order.
Top Five Wins of the Holgorsen Era
During his eight seasons in Morgantown, Holgorsen’s teams brought fans thrilling football. The Mountaineers finished 61-41 during his tenure. But the team struggled during bowl season, sporting a 2-5 record. Defensively, the Mountaineers struggled in all but a couple of seasons. But, offensively, the Mountaineers often fielded a top 15 unit. Holgorsen was brought in because of his brilliance on that side of the ball after all. And nowhere was that brilliance more apparent than in the first game on our list.
2012 Orange Bowl: 70-33
By most accounts, the Mountaineers’ 2011 regular season was disappointing. In their Big East swan song, fans hoped the Mountaineers’ upstart offense could finish the season undefeated. But they stumbled a few times and finished the regular season with a 9-3 record. They were ranked 23rd going into the Orange Bowl. They faced a Clemson team that had finally found its footing under Head Coach Dabo Swinney. In his fourth season, Clemson finally found ten wins, a mark they have reached each year since.
Clemson was favored by 3 ½ points. And in the first quarter, they proved the spread accurate, clinging to a 3-point lead to end the frame. But then the Mountaineers exploded, scoring 35 points in the second quarter to build a 49-20 lead at halftime. West Virginia set a new record with points in a quarter, and the two teams also set a record for combined points in a half.
But the offensive onslaught was not over. The Mountaineers added 21 points in the second half and won the game 70-33, setting a record for most points in a bowl game. The Holgorsen era had begun, and the Mountaineers looked like the offensive juggernaut for which fans longed.
Mountaineers Make a Statement in Big 12 Play
The Mountaineers’ offensive firepower continued into the next season. Going into their fifth game, the Mountaineers averaged 53 points per game and had just hit the 70 mark for the second time in five games with an unforgettable 70-63 win over Baylor in the team’s Big 12 conference opener in Morgantown.
The next week, however, the Mountaineers faced their first true test in Big 12 play, traveling to Austin to take on 11th-ranked Texas Longhorns. This was their first conference game against a perennial blue blood. And the Mountaineers and Longhorns put on a show. From the opening drive, the teams traded blows. And at halftime, the Longhorns held a slim 28-27 lead.
But the Mountaineers stepped on the pedal in the second half. Led by four touchdown passes from Geno Smith and an impressive 207-yard rushing performance from Andrew Buie, the Mountaineers took over in the fourth quarter and left Austin with a 48-45 win. For a team that many Texas fans said did not even belong on the same field with the Longhorns, the Mountaineers certainly proved otherwise. And the pollsters believed so, too, lifting the Mountaineers to fifth in the following week’s AP poll.
Mountaineers Right the Ship with Win over Baylor
The Mountaineers struggled in 2013 trying to replace Smith. The only quarterback who showed promise, graduate transfer Clint Trickett, was injured during the season. And the Mountaineers finished 4-8, their first losing season since 2001.
But Trickett took advantage of the offseason and blossomed in Holgorsen’s system. Despite two early losses (to Alabama and Oklahoma), the 4-2 Mountaineers had reason for optimism heading into their mid-October matchup against 4th-ranked Baylor.
The Bears pounced quickly, scoring on an opening drive that took only 59 seconds. And after the teams traded punches, Baylor took a 20-14 lead midway through the second quarter. Then, something happened. The Mountaineers’ defense woke up. And Tony Gibson dialed up significant pressure on Bryce Petty. Play after play, the Mountaineers got in Petty’s face and disrupted the Bears’ timing.
As a result, Baylor scored only once in the final 38 minutes. After impressive play by Trickett, Kevin White, and Mario Alford, the Mountaineers finished the Bears off. West Virginia won 41-27 in front of a raucous home-crowd starving to sing Country Roads against a top five opponent.
Pressure is the Key: Mahomes Goes Down
As a whole, the defensive play-calling in the years under Gibson was inconsistent. Sometimes, the defense dialed up pressure dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing key turnovers at critical moments. Other times, the defense played soft zone, rushing only three. The latter has been the butt of many jokes, especially in the second half of the 2018 season. In 2016, however, the Mountaineers’ defense was mostly relentless.
After finally overcoming Kansas State in their Big 12 opener, the Mountaineers traveled to Lubbock to face a high-octane offense led by Patrick Mahomes. To that point in the season, in fact, the Red Raiders averaged 55 points per game. But Mahomes and his unit was in for a surprise when the Mountaineers came to town.
How big of a surprise? The Mountaineers held Texas Tech to 17 points in that game, nearly 40 below their season average to that point. And the Mountaineers held Mahomes to two touchdowns and over 100 yards less than his personal averages. As a result, the Mountaineers made quick work of the Red Raiders, leaving Lubbock with a 48-17 win. And while Texas Tech was hardly a contender that season, the game was impressive as it showed potential on the defensive side under Gibson.
Full Circle: Another Close Call in Texas
For the fifth and final of their best games under Holgorsen, the Mountaineers traveled to Austin in 2018 to take on the Longhorns, who were finally “back,” after years of unsupported claims to that effect. Despite downplaying the theme in the week leading up to the game, the Mountaineers wanted revenge after Will Grier suffered a season-ending injury against the Longhorns in the year prior.
Just as they did in 2012, the teams traded punches from opening kickoff. And just like in 2012, the Longhorns held a 28-27 lead at halftime. But this time, the Mountaineers wouldn’t overcome that deficit until the final drive. Grier threw a dart to veteran receiver Gary Jennings, and the Mountaineers had the chance to tie the game at 41. But Holgorsen made a gutsy call to go for two. And after a couple of Texas timeouts, Grier trotted into the end zone untouched out of the same formation that led to his injury the year before. We wrote about it here. The Mountaineers turned the corner, and it looked like the promise of the 2018 season was being fulfilled.
As fans know too well, however, the Mountaineers ultimately stumbled and Holgorsen left for Houston just days after the bowl loss to Syracuse. Without doubt, at least one of the Mountaineers’ most disappointing losses of the Holgorsen era came in 2018. Stay tuned for the next part in this series where we will look closely at that full list.