2015 season review: A wild ride with West Virginia

The state of West Virginia is known as one of the best places to go whitewater rafting in America.

The Mountaineers' football team saved its fan base the trouble of taking one of those trips, taking them on an up-and-down journey this fall that would rival a trip down The Upper Gauley River.

West Virginia looked like a legitimate Big 12 title threat heading into conference play, having rolled through nonconference play with a 3-0 record by an average of 35.7 points per game. October brought a winless four-game stretch with losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor. The Mountaineers responded with a four-game winning streak to shake off the October disappointment stumbling in a 24-23 loss at Kansas State in the season finale to finish 7-5.

Here's a review of the Mountaineers' 2015 season to this point as Holgorsen and his team get set to prepare for a Motel 6 Cactus Bowl matchup against Arizona State on Jan. 2.

Best win: The Mountaineers looked headed for a losing season before an important 31-26 victory over Texas Tech on Nov. 7. Dana Holgorsen’s team had lost four straight games and was searching for any kind of positive momentum. A meeting of the minds among the seniors helped turn things around as West Virginia turned to its dynamic running duo of Wendell Smallwood (163 rushing yards, one touchdown) and Rushel Shell (111 rushing yards, two touchdowns) to hold off a late Red Raiders rally and snap its four-game skid.

Worst loss: The Mountaineers will look back at their 33-26 overtime loss to Oklahoma State as a missed opportunity. Four turnovers, a 17-points-off-turnovers margin and a pair of scoreless red-zone trips proved too much to overcome in the loss to the Cowboys. Three first half turnovers included an Emmanuel Ogbah fumble recovery touchdown leading to a 17-2 halftime deficit that put the Mountaineers behind the eight ball. After Skyler Howard’s touchdown forced overtime, Oklahoma State made the key plays in the extra period to secure the road victory and continue West Virginia's downward spiral.

Player of the year: Smallwood. The Big 12’s second leading rusher finished with 225 carries for 1,447 yards —6.43 yards per carry— and nine touchdowns. Smallwood emerged as the top playmaker in Holgorsen’s offense by becoming one of the nation’s most explosive running backs. The junior’s 57 rushes for 10 yards or more led the Big 12 and was tied for the national lead among FBS running backs with Oregon’s Royce Freeman. He didn’t draw the attention of other Big 12 runners such as Samaje Perine or DeAndre Washington but Smallwood was as good as any running back in the conference in 2015.

Breakout player: DE Noble Nwachukwu. The junior became a legitimate pass rushing threat for the Mountaineers defense, particularly in the second half of the season. Nwachukwu had seven sacks in West Virginia’s final six games, including a three-sack game in a 38-20 win over Texas. He finished with 42 tackles (32 solo), including 13 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries.

Play of the year: LB Jared Barber’s 42-yard fumble return against Texas. Barber capitalized on a botched Texas attempted reverse, scooping up the ball and galloping to the end zone for West Virginia’s first points in the first quarter against the Longhorns.

2016 outlook: A bowl victory would be key, but either way, the biggest season of Holgorsen’s tenure looms in 2016. Howard returns, but still has some of the Mountaineers fan base calling for other quarterbacks, namely William Crest, to get a chance. West Virginia really felt the loss of Kevin White and Mario Alford in 2015 as Shelton Gibson and the other potential big-play receivers on the roster looked like young receivers who could make a game-changing play on one snap, then drop a wide-open potential touchdown on the next. And things won’t be any easier next season as the upperclassmenwho drove West Virginia into a bowl game, like Nick Kwiatkoski and Kyle Rose, will be gone. West Virginia has some pieces to work with, but patience is quickly diminishing for a program that hasn't played for a Big 12 title since joining the league in 2012.