West Virginia and its high-powered offense led by Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith might appear downright impossible to shut down, but that wasn’t always the case.
For all of coach Dana Holgorsen’s statistical magnificence, there have also been blemishes. The Mountaineers’ Air Raid attack might be unstoppable on its best days, but on others it’s not unbeatable.
Last year, the Mountaineers dropped their big nonconference home test against LSU, 47-21. Smith set school passing records on that night that he has since shattered, and he got WVU as close as 27-21, but the Tigers pulled away and scored the game’s final three touchdowns.
That didn’t come as a surprise. The Tigers went on to hold down a No. 1 ranking for much of the season and played for the national title. No shame in that loss.
But the other two losses on West Virginia’s slate last year, well, they raise some questions. How exactly did two Big East foes beat the Mountaineers? What’s the secret?
The first was a legitimate stunner. No. 11 West Virginia traveled to Syracuse for a Friday night game last Oct. 21. The Carrier Dome was packed with its largest crowd in three years. The local fans went home happy. Syracuse won 49-23 by playing a near-flawless game.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for four touchdowns, three to his tight end. His offense owned the line of scrimmage, producing 194 rushing yards and no rushes for loss, and Syracuse returned a kickoff for another score.
Thanks to a bye week, the Orange had plenty of time to draw up a savvy defensive game plan. Defensive end Chandler Jones, a future NFL first-rounder, recorded two sacks and six solo stops, and Syracuse forced two Smith interceptions at critical junctures in the game.
"It's quite simple," Holgorsen said after the game. "We knew what we were getting ourselves into. Syracuse beat us physically on all three sides of the ball. They outplayed us and outcoached us. It's as simple as that."
Asked on Monday to recall the key to Syracuse’s victory that night, Syracuse coach Doug Marrone didn’t point to any one turning point. This was a full-team win with a level of execution that a coach dreams of seeing.
“Looking back at it, I think obviously our players were ready to play,” Marrone said. “During the three years we played a West Virginia team, I really believe we played extremely hard, we played well, we didn’t turn the ball over, we didn’t commit penalties.
“The turnover ratio, the tackling, the situations -- we were able to stay ahead in things, whether it be down and distance or whether it be scoring and being able to answer. We did all those things when we played West Virginia, and we felt very good the way we matched up versus West Virginia teams.”
Two weeks later, on Nov. 5, Louisville came to Morgantown and left with a 38-35 victory. The team proudly sang John Denver’s “Country Roads” in the locker room after the game.
They sang because, despite being outgained 533-351 in total yardage, Louisville hung in and withstood every Mountaineer punch. The Cardinals landed the finishing blow with a seven-minute, 13-play touchdown drive to take a 10-point lead with two minutes left.
Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t mistake-free but was good enough, and Louisville’s Big East-best defense held Smith in check when it mattered. West Virginia missed two field goals, including one that was blocked and returned 82 yards for a touchdown to start the fourth quarter.
Smith hit Stedman Bailey for a touchdown in the final minute, but an unsuccessful onside kick sealed West Virginia’s fate.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong had little interest in looking back and discussing that win this week. West Virginia left the Big East, so he has moved on.
“They have an outstanding quarterback and they have skill at the right positions,” Strong said. “The quarterback is making the right moves and they’re running by people right now. But we don’t have to answer this stuff. We don’t play 'em, so I don’t have to worry about 'em.”
The job of worrying about West Virginia now belongs to Texas and the rest of the Big 12, though it’s not an unfamiliar task. After two seasons of sharing the duties, Holgorsen took over as Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator in 2007.
Since then, his offenses have averaged 41 points, 534 yards and 77 plays per game. He thrived at Tech, he thrived at Oklahoma State and now he’s returned for more.
“This offense has been around now for a while,” Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Dana is a great coach and he’s bounced around a bunch of places. If anybody had a blueprint on them on how to stop them one way, everybody would be doing it.”
Syracuse and Louisville had their own blueprints. Those teams scored more points in their wins over West Virginia than they did against any team the rest of the year.
What did their games have in common? Both the Cardinals and Orange won the turnover battle. Both got touchdowns from their special-teams units. They let Smith put up big numbers but still managed to stifle him on key drives.
Most importantly, they scored and then they kept scoring. If the Longhorns can do the same, they’ll have a chance to be the ones singing by the end of Saturday night.