MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sometimes games like we saw on Tuesday afternoon against Utah in the Heart of Dallas Bowl happen.
You don’t want them to happen. Nobody enjoys watching them when they happen, but they happen.
Just ask Don Nehlen.
During his second year at WVU, his banged-up Mountaineer team was facing fourth-ranked Pitt at Mountaineer Field. The Panthers had the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense and backup defensive back Dan Daniels playing quarterback with starter Dan Marino on the shelf due to injury.
Quarterback Oliver Luck ran for his life all afternoon, completed less than half of his 36 pass attempts for 92 yards with three interceptions and West Virginia didn’t run a single offensive play on Pitt’s side of the field.
West Virginia’s 56 plays accounted for 138 yards and seven first downs, and the Panthers, without the benefit of completing a single pass, blanked WVU, 17-0.
Ten years later, Nehlen’s Mountaineers saw a repeat at Penn State when he took a depleted football team right into a buzzsaw in State College.
Things got so bad for the Hall of Fame coach that he had to pull the remaining healthy starters he had out of the game and take his medicine.
The prescription that day was 131 net yards and eight first downs in a 51-6 drubbing.
Three years after that, he took a team decimated by graduation into the Meadowlands in New Jersey and watched Tom Osborne’s Nebraska machine roll right through them. With two young quarterbacks nowhere close to being ready, and an inexperienced offensive line unable to keep Nebraska defenders off them, West Virginia had just 89 net yards and nine first downs against the Huskers.
Yes, sometimes it happens.
Ask Rich Rodriguez.
When Rich Rod arrived in Morgantown in 2001 he told Mountaineer fans from Weirton to Welch, Martinsburg to Matewan, and all points in between that his team was going to “play like its hair was on fire.”
Well, against Virginia Tech that year it was WVU’s playbook that was in flames. Third-string quarterback Derek Jones had a tough time figuring out left from right because Tech’s defenders had him surrounded from left to right each time he dropped back to pass the football.
The result was 173 yards and 11 first downs in a 35-0 loss.
Two years later, in 2003, Rich Rod’s team hopped on a bus and rode over to College Park for a late afternoon football game against Maryland.
The quarterback operating the offense that day, Rasheed Marshall, was one year away from becoming the Big East’s player of the year.
But not on this day.
He completed just two passes for 25 yards and West Virginia managed 156 yards and 11 first downs against a decent but not great Terp defense.
Three months later in the rematch in the Gator Bowl, the Mountaineers did show some improvement with 241 total yards and nine first downs in a 34-point loss.
Sometimes it happens.
Ask Bobby Bowden, considered one of the most innovative offensive coaches of his time.
In 1973, Bowden was deep into his depth chart when his team faced Penn State in State College. That was the game Nittany Lion running back John Cappelletti famously said that he was going to score three touchdowns for his dying kid brother Joey.
Well, he ended up scoring four and the fifth-ranked Lions rolled to a 62-14 victory that afternoon. Bowden’s offense generated 166 yards, 96 of that coming on one pass play from Ben Williams to Danny Buggs.
Remove that one play and you are talking about 70 net yards on those 57 other snaps.
The late Art Lewis?
Pappy’s offense was so bad during his last year at WVU in 1959 that after being shut out in four of six games against Boston University, Syracuse, USC and Virginia Tech, fans were actually celebrating touchdowns, even the two the Mountaineers scored in a 21-14 loss to The Citadel to conclude the ’59 season.
The team Lewis left first-year coach Gene Corum in 1960 was so bad that sports information director Eddie Barrett once joked that he wrote about first downs instead of touchdowns that year.
West Virginia lost eight and tied two that season.
Carlen’s offense, which was actually Bobby Bowden’s offense, was so inept in 1966 that four times that year West Virginia failed to generate at least 10 first downs in games against Duke, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Syracuse. WVU had 109 yards against the Hokies, 135 against the Nittany Lions and 127 against the Orange.
It can happen.
Dana Holgorsen? Remember what happened to his offense in 2013 against Maryland in Baltimore with freshman Ford Childress under center?
Yes, it does happen.
But rarely does it remain that way.
Just weeks after the Pitt loss in ’81, Nehlen’s offense rebounded to upset Florida in the Peach Bowl and then nine months after that, put 41 on the scoreboard against ninth-ranked Oklahoma in Norman. Who remembered the Pitt abomination after that great victory at Oklahoma?
Two years after that miserable loss at Penn State when the lion roared so many times on the PA system that your teeth ached, Nehlen had his team undefeated and off to the Sugar Bowl. He also got things figured out in 1994 when he finally settled on Chad Johnston as his starting quarterback.
We know what happened with his offense when Pat White and Steve Slaton showed up on campus.
He got his quarterback situation straightened out in 1975 with Dan Kendra and Danny Williams, and West Virginia won nine games including a Peach Bowl victory over Lou Holtz’s NC State Wolfpack.
The offense came around when Mike Sherwood stabilized things under center and a power running game was added with Jim Braxton and Bob Gresham.
Even after Lewis left and Corum took over, WVU finally got things right in 1962 when it won eight games and beat Syracuse for the first time ever at Archbold Stadium.
In 2014, Holgorsen’s team rebounded from its disappointing season in 2013 with Florida State transfer Clint Trickett under center to have one of the most potent offenses in the country.
And history says it will happen once again following Tuesday’s loss.
“It was a disappointing loss to end a disappointing season,” Holgorsen said afterward. “A couple (of the senior players) stepped up and said ‘remember how this feels right now’ because in 2018 we want it to be a more successful season and we understand that we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Holgorsen will get it figured out, especially when Will Grier gets healthy and all those playmakers return.
They will be motivated now like never before after what happened down in Dallas, and these returning players will all benefit from knowing that this can happen if they let their guard down.
Because it’s happened before and it can happen again, whether we like it or not.
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