In its first year in the Big 12, West Virginia appeared to be on a roll. After a 5-0 start to the 2012 season, the Mountaineers climbed to fifth in the polls.
Dana Holgorsen, however, could see that the walls might soon cave in on his team.
“We're sitting at 5-0, but we had just given up 63 points to Baylor and 45 points to Texas,” Holgorsen said recently in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's John Harris. “I knew we were in trouble."
It turned out Holgorsen had reason to be concerned. West Virginia had star power with the offensive trio of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but the Mountaineers didn't have much else. And with too many holes elsewhere, they hobbled to a 7-6 finish.
Today, the Mountaineers appear to have a much stronger foundation. Behind defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, whom Holgorsen tabbed last year to bring back the 3-3-5 defense, they have a defensive identity as well.
“Being a coordinator prior to being a head coach, I was really just focused on one side of the ball,” Holgorsen told the Tribune-Review. “There's got to be a side of the head coach that gives all three sides of the ball (offense, defense and special teams) some of my time and efforts. I'm in the offensive room most of the time, but defensively we've come a long way.”
Have they ever.
In their Big 12 debut season, the Mountaineers had the second-worst scoring defense of any Power 5 conference program. Last year, Gibson's bunch held Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU to their lowest conference scoring outputs. West Virginia knocked off the Bears and led the Horned Frogs in the fourth quarter; had the Mountaineers held on to beat TCU, they would have been in the driver's seat in the conference title race.
After three straight top 40 recruiting classes, the Mountaineers have the pieces, especially on defense, to be a factor again this season. And, as Harris notes, they have a coach in Holgorsen who seems to be hitting his stride in Year 5 in Morgantown.
“I just understand the whole program better, the state of West Virginia better, the fan base better, the administration better,” Holgorsen said. “Some things I just had to deal with, which is the natural transition of taking over a program. Some mistakes were made based on not being a head coach in the past. You're going to make bad hires at times. You're going to make bad decisions in recruiting at times.
"But the current state of the program, the current state of my mind is in a pretty good place.”