Several weeks ago, we ranked the top five West Virginia football wins of the Dana Holgorsen era to mixed reactions. Some fans played along and offered their own rankings. But more fans suggested that it is time to move on. After all, as we also wrote, Neal Brown is bringing a lot of excitement to Morgantown these days. But the exercise of reflection is not without utility. That should become abundantly clear as we go through our list of the worst five losses during the Holgorsen era.
The first loss on our list is against the weakest opponent. Some might consider it the worst loss for that reason alone. But considering the 2013 team finished 4-8 and struggled in virtually every game that season, it is hard to justify putting this at the top of the list. That said, Kansas had suffered through 27 straight conference losses prior to this game. The Jayhawks followed their win against the Mountaineers by losing 27 of their next 28 conference games. The loss to the Jayhawks, then, marks a definite low point for the state of the program at the time.
To make matters worse, after the Mountaineers scored on their opening drive, they surrendered five straight Jayhawk scores. West Virginia was losing 31-7 going into the final five minutes of the game, in route to a 31-19 final. This was not just an upset loss. Instead, it was a lopsided blowout loss to an historically impotent opponent.
Next up is the Mountaineers’ 2017 loss to TCU. West Virginia traveled to Fort Worth on a three-game winning streak. A road win against the eighth-ranked Horned Frogs would certainly have set a tone for Will Grier’s introductory season in Morgantown. Instead, the Mountaineers coughed the ball up twice and lost the game by a single score.
The 31-24 loss was a microcosm of Holgorsen’s tenure in Morgantown in a key way. During that time, the Mountaineers’ lack of disciplined football showed up in the team’s turnover margin. Outside of a couple of seasons, West Virginia often finished in the bottom third of all teams in the nation in that category. An inability to create turnovers was one thing, of course. But the Mountaineers coughed it up one or two times a game, almost without fail. And that was the difference-maker in this game.
Inexplicably, the first turnover was on special teams, when the Mountaineers surrendered a fumble on a punt return. The second turnover was an interception thrown by Will Grier. The Horned Frogs turned both turnovers into touchdowns, and this second interception allowed the Horned Frogs to jump out to a 17-3 lead. Despite some second-half heroics, West Virginia never overcame the turnovers to recapture the lead.
Camping World Bowl 2018
Holgorsen’s final season in Morgantown ended fittingly. A loud contingent of vocal fans were simply tired of Holgorsen, and, based on certain post-game comments, it appeared he had grown weary himself. After the Mountaineers began the season with an 8-1 record, climbing as high as sixth in the AP poll, they lost two straight and entered bowl season with a disappointing matchup with upstart Syracuse. To make matters worse, the Mountaineers looked ill-prepared for the game and surrendered a 34-18 loss to the Orange.
After the game, Holgorsen added to fans’ consternation when he said, “People can be disappointed all they want to. We know we had a good year. We battled hard all year long and came up a little bit short. Welcome to big-time football.” It may be true that some Mountaineer fans were impatient, arguably unreasonably so, during the first few years of the transition to the Big 12. But after posting a 2-5 bowl game record and a 10-21 record against AP-ranked teams, fans had understandably grown impatient with this iteration of “big-time football.”
West Virginia’s loss to a ranked TCU squad in Morgantown in 2014 reinforces Holgorsen’s point about coming “up a little bit short.” The game must be measured against it backdrop, however. In 2013, the Mountaineers finished 4-8. But there was plenty of reason to be excited heading into 2014. Florida State transfer signal caller Clint Trickett was healthy and looked poised and in command of Holgorsen’s offense. Kevin White and Mario Alford looked like a dangerous 1-2 punch at wideout. And the defense looked like it might finally gain its footing as the unit returned plenty of promising veterans.
The season started with a 10-point loss to second-ranked Alabama, but the game was only two or three plays from swinging in the Mountaineers’ favor. The Mountaineers suffered another misstep against Oklahoma early, but dominated fourth-ranked Baylor just a couple weeks earlier. The Mountaineers were 6-2 and ranked 20th heading into the home game against the Horned Frogs. The ESPN GameDay crew broadcasted from Morgantown that day.
And the Mountaineers commanded on the defensive side through the first half, holding the potent TCU offense to just 7. The Mountaineers even held a 27-14 lead with just 3 minutes left in the third quarter. But they surrendered a long drive, and TCU closed the gap to six heading into the final frame. Holgorsen frantically sought to conserve time, and employed a run heavy attack. But the offense generally failed to control the clock, Holgorsen failed to adjust, and TCU left Morgantown with a win on a heartbreaking last-second field goal. Poor game management ended up being the difference between a second straight top-25 win and “coming up a little bit short” in a 31-30 loss.
Oklahoma State 2018
Poor game management and a lackadaisical approach with a lead have haunted the Mountaineers under Holgorsen’s tenure. But these traits showed up at the worst possible time against the Cowboys this past season. West Virginia was 8-1 and ranked sixth in the AP poll heading into Stillwater. The teams’ goal heading into the season was a spot in the Big 12 championship game, and the Mountaineers could clinch that spot with a win. And West Virginia came out swinging, building an impressive 31-14 lead going into the half.
But Oklahoma state closed the gap through the second half. The narrative felt all too familiar. The Mountaineers played undisciplined, uninspired football with the lead and let a hungry Cowboys’ team hang around too long. The Mountaineers showed life late in the fourth quarter and reestablished a ten-point lead. But then the Cowboys scored twice in the final five minutes and escaped with a narrow 45-41 victory. And just like that, the Mountaineers’ best chance at a Big 12 championship crashed and burned.
What is Next?
As promised, rather than recreate some of the pain Mountaineer fans have suffered over the last several years, the list serves a larger purpose. While we continue to believe Holgorsen suffered disproportionate criticism from the moment he came to Morgantown, the excitement surrounding the program since the hire of Neal Brown has put some of the program’s recent shortcomings into perspective. So far, Brown seems like an extremely interactive coach whose staff focuses heavily on team-building, discipline, and fundamentals. Fans can certainly hope that translates to a few more wins each year.