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Blowout losses have West Virginia readjusting to life in Big 12

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Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
West Virginia offensive lineman Jeff Braun (57) is one of 11 seniors who started in the Mountaineers' 55-34 loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Mid-term grades

Evaluating West Virginia after the first seven games of the 2012 season:

Quarterbacks: A — West Virginia fans are rightfully upset about the past two games, but Geno Smith's performance in his first five games made him the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Smith didn't throw his first interception until his 327th pass, an NCAA record, but by then he had already tossed 25 touchdown passes. Smith has five more regular season games to get himself, and WVU, back on track.

Running backs: B — A thigh bruise has sidelined Shawne Alston for the past four games, forcing Andrew Buie into a more prominent role. Buie was named Big 12 offensive player of the week after rushing for a career-best 207 yards in a big win at Texas. Dustin Garrison has been slow to recover from knee surgery, limiting the team's depth at running back.

Receivers/tight ends: A — Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey could be the best receiver tandem in college football. Their ability to convert short tosses into first downs and touchdowns propelled the WVU's fast start. With defenses double-teaming Smith and Bailey, the running game opened up. Bailey's ankle injury against Texas Tech has limited his effectiveness. WVU's offense doesn't have a tight end.

Offensive line: A — They have kept their quarterback clean and made it possible for the offense to score 69 points against Marshall in the opener, 70 points against Baylor and 48 points at Texas. The line has remained intact for six of the first seven games, with the only lineup change at right guard. Coach Dana Holgorsen wants to see more of a push in the run game; that could change when Alston returns.

Defensive line: C- — An injury to Allderdice's Will Clarke hasn't helped, but even when healthy the Mountaineers have struggled to rush the passer. Run defense is their strength. The transition under new defensive coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson has been slow and, at times, awkward. The decision of the coaching staff to give freshmen more playing time has not improved line play.

Linebackers: C — The linebackers are expected to be playmakers, but they haven't made nearly enough of them. Isaiah Bruce leads the team in tackles, and Terence Garvin and Josh Francis are first and second in sacks. Relatively stout against the run, they have struggled against the pass.

Defensive backs: F — WVU is No. 120 in pass defense — last in the country with one interception among defensive backs. Instructed to give receivers a healthy cushion on most pass plays, the secondary has yielded large chunks of yards while also struggling to pick up the ball while in flight. A lack of a consistent pass rush hasn't helped the secondary's cause.

Special teams: B- — Austin has a 100-yard kickoff return against Kansas State and is a threat to go all the way on every return. Kick protection has been so-so with a field goal and punt blocked. Corey Smith and Tyler Bitancurt have split punting duties.

Coaching: B+ — Holgorsen had WVU ranked as high as No. 5 despite a porous defense. An offensive genius, he must bring his defense up to speed. How Holgorsen handles the Mountaineers' current two-game losing streak will be the biggest test during his first two years in Morgantown.

Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 10:42 p.m.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia battled out of a midseason slump last season to win its final four games. The finale for the Mountaineers was a 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

During that difficult stretch, WVU lost 49-23 at Syracuse, won 41-31 at Rutgers, and lost to Louisville 38-35 at home.

The Mountaineers this year entered their second bye week following consecutive losses to Kansas State and Texas Tech by a combined 104-28 score.

Coach Dana Holgorsen is hopeful for a similar turnaround, but he realizes circumstances may be different.

“Whenever you put up two losses like that back-to-back, it is a little different,'' he said of the Mountaineers, who are 5-2 and 2-2 in their first Big 12 season. “There are some challenges this year that didn't exist with last year's team, and there were some challenges last year that don't exist with this team.''

While acknowledging those differences, Holgorsen admits there also are similarities.

Playing an improved schedule with essentially the same roster that won the Big East in 2011 may be the biggest challenge.

“Basically, it boils down to having to bounce back, and that doesn't happen overnight,'' said Holgorsen, who is 15-5 at WVU. “We bounced back last season. This is different because of who we are playing. We just played the No. 3 team in the country (Kansas State). It is going to take a whole year of going through the Big 12 for everyone to understand the Big 12.''

Until then, Holgorsen wants to put the focus on his team.

On defense, the plan is to simplify things for as many as nine freshmen who already have received playing time.

“We have to make things more manageable,'' Holgorsen said. “We can't try to manufacture plays or people. We can't come up with tricks because that is not the solution. We are going to focus on trying to get better at things we are already good at.''

Offensively, the Mountaineers have gotten away from doing some of the things they do best. For instance, look for a return to the short passing game that was effective early.

“We should have done a better job of completing the ball underneath,'' Holgorsen said following the 55-14 loss to Kansas State.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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