No sooner had we praised the West Virginia football team in this column last week for its stellar play at home than did the Mountaineers commit costly mistakes in a poorly-played game, resulting in a stunning 19-14 upset loss to Syracuse.
I am not talking about lack of effort. The Mountaineers played hard, as they always do. But it is obvious this game was lost by a lack of focus and preparation during the week of practice leading up to the game. Fail to take an opponent seriously, particularly one in your conference, and you are asking for trouble.
Syracuse is no longer a bad football team, and after a decade of losing and eight straight losses to West Virginia when they were handed an opportunity for an upset win they seized it with enthusiasm. The Orange outplayed the Mountaineers in every phase of the game and was the team more deserving of a win on Saturday.
Three interceptions were costly, the most important of which was a late first quarter pick when WVU was about to take control. But, in his defense, quarterback Geno Smith also was harried and hurried most of the game, as the West Virginia offensive line could not handle the blitzing schemes of Syracuse.
Look at the six losses suffered by the Mountaineers in 2009 and 2010 and it is interesting what you will find. Only once in those losses has the WVU defense permitted an opponent to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter on a possession beginning in its own territory. But the offense scored only two touchdowns in the fourth quarter in those games, and one of those was in the waning seconds at Cincinnati when down 10 points.
Another disconcerting pattern is evident. Last season, the WVU offense scored 21 points in the first quarter at Auburn but only 9 the remainder of the game; scored on the first drive at South Florida but only 10 points thereafter; put up 14 points at Cincinnati in the first half but couldn't score again until just a few seconds were left; tallied two touchdowns at Rutgers in the first quarter but none on offense the remainder of the game; and scored touchdowns on its first two possessions in the Gator Bowl but only one in the last 3 quarters.
This season, in two Big East games, WVU has totaled 31 points in the first half but only 3 in the second. On Saturday, WVU gained 166 yards and 14 points in the first quarter and then only 118 yards and zero points the last three.
What conclusions can we draw? West Virginia has not been losing games because of failures on defense. And it is obvious that in many such games the Mountaineer offense has started fast and disappeared. Opponents are making adjustments on defense and we have had no answers.
Does it happen in every game? No, but it happens enough that it is understandable why many Mountaineer fans are shining a bright light on the offensive coaching staff.
For the record, West Virginia has now lost seven Big East games in which they were favored over the last 5 years. Three of those have been to double digit underdogs at home (USF in '06, Pitt in '07 and Syracuse in '10)
This Friday: The game between WVU and Connecticut will be an interesting study in how two teams react to adversity. UConn has had some of its own, as its starting quarterback was thrown off the team and its offense was hapless in a 26-0 loss at Louisville. Surely the Mountaineers will not overlook a hungry opponent two weeks in a row. West Virginia 20, Louisville 10.