The West Virginia Mountaineers have seen plenty of ups and downs in Dana Holgorsen’s coaching tenure, from the 10-3 mark and Orange Bowl win in his first season (2011) to 2013’s 4-8 campaign and three separate 7-6 seasons. The latest of those came this year, capped off by a 30-14 loss to the Utah Utes in the Heart of Dallas Bowl Tuesday.
It was a disappointing end to a disappointing season, as West Virginia had some highs (particularly a 20-16 Week 9 win over then-No. 14 Iowa State), but also major lows, including the No. 24 Mountaineers losing 28-14 at home to unranked Texas in Week 11. There are some reasons to be optimistic about 2018, especially with quarterback Will Grier and star receiver David Sills V (who led FBS with 18 touchdown catches this season) both returning, but there are further reasons to wonder if West Virginia can actually break through and live up to their potential.
Under Holgorsen and his Air Raid lineage, which includes successful offensive coordinator stints at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers have often had an impressive offense. They finished this season (pre-bowl) 14th in total offense with 485.2 yards per game, 12th in passing offense with 324.8 aerial yards per game, and 18th in scoring offense with 36.3 points per game. But that offensive production hasn’t exactly been consistent; West Virginia topped 50 points three separate times (all wins), but also scored 14 points twice (both losses), 20 points once (a win) and 24 points twice (both losses). And yes, discussion of this bowl loss should consider that Grier was hurt and didn’t play, but sophomore Chris Chugunov was not impressive, completing just nine of 28 passes (32.1 per cent) for 129 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
The offense has obviously been better when an experienced hand like Grier is at the helm, but it’s had plenty of inconsistencies in those moments too. In addition, the defense has been a real issue. The Mountaineers were 92nd in scoring defense this year, allowing 31.6 points per game, and 110th in total defense, conceding 452.5 yards per game. Even when the offense did come through against tough teams, notching 39 against No. 10 Oklahoma State and 31 against No. 3 Oklahoma, West Virginia gave up 50 and 59 points respectively. Not all of that’s specifically on the defense, as some of that came from turnovers and special teams, but you’re not going to win a whole lot of games when you’re allowing a half-century worth of points.
And the defensive problems were on display again against Utah Tuesday. Yes, the Mountaineers only conceded 30 points overall and held opposing quarterback Tyler Huntley to 12 completions on 26 attempts (46.1 per cent) for 165 yards, but they couldn’t stop the run at all. Zack Moss had 150 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (7.5 yards per carry), while Huntley himself picked up 57 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, including several crucial short-yardage plays to keep drives alive. That was a wider issue all season long, as West Virginia was 104th in rushing defense, allowing 204.8 yards against on the ground per game. That needs to be improved if this team’s ever going to make much of a mark.
The big question is if Holgorsen can get his Mountaineers to be more than just a decent mid-range Big 12 team. They’ve had their moments, including that 10-3 Orange Bowl run in his first year and last year’s 10-3 campaign, but the three 7-6 campaigns seem more indicative of where this team will generally be. Perhaps West Virginia can do more next year, especially with Grier and Sills returning and with Grier (a Florida transfer) now with more experience in Holgorsen’s system, but they still have a long way to go.
They’ll certainly need more offensive consistency, and they’ll need to get more defensive stops. The Mountaineers have a whole lot of potential, especially when their offense is clicking perfectly, but while Holgorsen’s tenure has seen some moments where they can play with anyone (including that first-season 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson), it’s also seen an awful lot of mediocrity. We’ll see if they can move beyond that in 2018, or if it will be more of the same.