MORGANTOWN - In the end, the problems that have haunted the West Virginia football team all season proved to be too much to overcome, despite some outstanding performances.
The Mountaineers' (4-8, 2-7 Big 12) 52-44 triple-overtime loss to Iowa State at Milan Puskar Stadium Saturday not only handed the old gold and blue its worst mark since the 2001 team finished 4-7, but sent 14 seniors away with yet another disappointing loss.
"That was pretty much indicative of the whole year," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "We were running the ball good. You can second-guess all you want. But every play we call has options to either run or throw.
"We probably turned the ball over at the worst of times. Bad timing. Bad, bad timing."
The loss didn't come without some standout performances, however.
In a season in which third-year head coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff spent much of their time searching for offensive sparks, junior college transfer Mario Alford gave the Mountaineers only their second 100-yard receiving performance of the year, finishing with seven catches for 203 yards and a score. Fellow JC recruit Kevin White had the only other such receiving effort against Baylor.
The fact that they should both be on the field when WVU takes on Alabama to begin next season should give fans some hope that the offense will be a little more productive in 2014.
"At least, we seem to have the right pieces in the right places now," added Dawson. "And give our kids credit today, they never quit."
Alford, who had 116 yards on five catches in the first 30 minutes, did his most damage after an ISU punt pinned the old gold and blue back on its 9-yard line with 1:13 remaining in the first quarter.
Back-to-back receptions, one for 30 yards and the other for 40, put the Mountaineers at the ISU 17 at the close of the quarter. WVU needed only one play to put the ball into the end zone as FSU transfer Clint Trickett hit White for the 17-yard touchdown and a 24-7 lead.
The former Georgia Military College standout brought back memories of St. Louis Rams standout Tavon Austin when he hauled in his sixth reception from Trickett and sped 76 yards untouched for WVU's first touchdown of the second half.
His 76-yard catch and score in the fourth quarter gave the Mountaineers a 17-point, 38-21, advantage with 13:42 left to play.
But just like in losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Texas, the lead would not be large enough as ISU starting quarterback Grant Rohach began to find openings in the Mountaineer secondary, and running backs Shontrelle Johnson and Aaron Wimberly started grinding out yards on the ground.
But the game's outcome would ultimately come down to a trio of turnovers.
The first coming on a first-and-goal at the ISU 1. Freshman Wendall Smallwood's fumble was recovered by the Cyclones' Jeremiah George. Instead of pushing its lead to 38-14, fans watched as the visitors marched 99 yards in 12 plays to slice the margin to 10 at 31-21.
Then after an exchange of touchdowns, WVU put the ball on the turf again on a Vernon Davis fumble that was recovered by ISU's Cory Morrissey at the WV 38. The Cyclones turned that miscue into three points on a Cole Netten 31-yard field goal.
West Virginia still led by seven, 38-31, but the momentum clearly had swung in the direction of the Cyclones.
Momentum that continued to build when the Cyclones' Jaques Washington picked off a Clint Trickett pass and returned it to the WVU 33 with 2:46 left in the game.
Rohach's second touchdown pass of the day, this one going to Justin Coleman from 19 yards out, with one minute left sent the game into extra periods - a place the Mountaineers had been twice previously this season with one ending in a win and the other a defeat.
"It just boils down to them making a few more plays at the end than we did," Holgorsen explained. "They (ISU) aren't much different from us. They have been in just about every game they've played this season, but have come up a play or two short - just like us - in many of them."
Freshman placekicker Josh Lambert continued his standout play this season, connecting on field goals from 41 and 26 yards out to match the Cyclones' Netten, who made good from 40 and 26 yards in the first two overtimes.
But yet another miscue in the secondary on ISU's first play in the third overtime proved to be the difference as Rohach, who finished with 331 yards and four touchdowns, found Colman all alone in the end zone for the winning touchdown. The freshman then connected with E.J. Bibbs for the two-point conversion for the final score.
WVU tried to respond, getting a first-and-goal at the ISU 3 on a 22-yard completion from Trickett to Charles Sims. But that would be as close as the hosts would get as Trickett's fourth-down pass to Daikiel Shorts came up two yards short of a touchdown.
"Obviously, a disappointing end of the game," Holgorsen said. "Obviously, a disappointing end to a disappointing season."