It’s almost as if West Virginia has played two different seasons.
One season features an undefeated squad that has outscored opponents by an average of 26 points with a strong, opportunistic defense and quality running game.
The other season features a turnover-riddled team that struggled to get stops on defense and never found a rhythm on offense, resulting in a four-game losing streak with an average loss by 20.2 points.
West Virginia’s 0-4 October would have crippled a less determined team, sending the group into a downward spiral from which it wouldn’t have recovered. Instead, Dana Holgorsen’s team has sandwiched its nightmare October with three wins (Georgia Southern, Liberty, Maryland) to start the season in September and back-to-back wins over Texas and Texas Tech to kick off November.
“It was tough in October, there’s no doubt about it,” said Holgorsen, who saw his team drop games to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU. “We played four really good teams and caught all four when it seemed like they were playing at their best.”
The numbers are pretty striking. The Mountaineers averaged 1.46 points per drive and 4.71 yards per play while allowing 2.63 points per drive and 6.75 yards per play with a plus-12 turnover margin in October. In their five other games, the Mountaineers averaged 2.95 points per drive and 6.42 yards per play while allowing 1.08 points per drive and 5.01 yards per play with a minus-6 turnover margin.
The four straight losses tested the resolve of the Mountaineers, a team that had hopes of battling for a Big 12 title. With their title dreams in tatters, the veterans on the roster took over. Seniors such as linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive tackle Kyle Rose and safety K.J. Dillon refused to leave a legacy that included a final season that was defined by a rough midyear stretch.
“We have about 20 seniors. I met with those guys and said we have a lot to play for,” Holgorsen said. “These seniors were the ones that came into the Big 12 four years ago so I know it's important to them to be their absolute best when they leave at the end of the year.”
Turning the train around required a strong finish to the season, an accomplishment West Virginia has never achieved since joining the Big 12. The Mountaineers went 1-3 in November during each of their first three seasons in the conference as they repeatedly fell on their face during the home stretch.
With its victories over Texas and Texas Tech, West Virginia already has secured more November wins in 2015 than it had during each of the previous three seasons.
“It’s hard to win in the Big 12, so when you do, you have to enjoy it,” Holgorsen said after the 38-20 win over Texas.
By improving to 5-4, Holgorsen’s program will be aiming for bowl eligibility when it visits Kansas on Saturday. As West Virginia plans for success against the Jayhawks, it will be wise to remember its last trip to Lawrence resulted in a shocking 31-19 loss.
“This week will be the first time we talk about bowl eligibility,” said Holgorsen, whose team made bowl appearances in three of his first four seasons. “Kansas is an improving football team that had a very realistic opportunity to win at TCU. Outside of that, we’ve got to worry about getting ourselves ready to play.”