MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Three up, three downers.
West Virginia came out flat, again, and lost its third game in a row, this a 26-20 defeat against No. 12 Kansas State Thursday night at Milan Puskar Stadium. The Mountaineers fell to 6-5 on the season and will travel to winless-in-Big-12 Iowa State next Saturday in hopes of salvaging an eight-win regular season.
There were new disappointments in this one, things that didn't arise two weeks ago against Texas, so let's address some 'em:
• QB PLAY | You didn't think it could happen, right? QB Clint Trickett has come hurtling back to earth as a very, very mortal quarterback. Tonight, he completed 12 of 25 passes for 112 yards and two interceptions and left with a concussion. He was replaced by backup Skyler Howard after the second pick, but it appears the concussion came on the first one, when Trickett saved a touchdown by diving for S Randall Evans's knees to bring him down. We'll have more answers Tuesday, when coach Dana Holgorsen takes the stand again, but presumably Trickett was either not showing signs of a concussion at halftime or was evaluated and ruled as OK to play. His second pick came on the first drive of the second half, then he headed up the tunnel to the locker room. Howard, for his part, nearly saved the night. The junior-college transfer finished 15-of-23 passing in his first real work of his West Virginia career and threw two touchdown passes, a 7-yarder to WR Kevin White and a 53-yard screen-and-run to WR Mario Alford. “[Howard] went in there and didn’t bat an eye,” Holgorsen said. “He was confident. He was comfortable. … He gave us a chance to win. He’s the reason it was a six-point game." Holgorsen opted to speak of Howard's good game rather than Trickett's bad one, and he said he "absolutely" will consider expanding Howard's role next week. That might depend on Trickett's health, anyway. Just take a look at Trickett's statistical dropoff the past month (via ESPN) ... pretty remarkable.
• RUNNING GAME | West Virginia's running backs did a whole lot of nothing tonight. RBs Rushel Shell, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood combined for 122 yards on 31 carries, which seems reasonable except for the fact that opponents are begging West Virginia to run the ball and giving them favorable boxes to run into. I'll have to look back over the tape to break down Kansas State's approach, but it ain't an Alabama run defense. Smallwood fumbled on first down at the Kansas State 2 to end West Virginia's first scoring chance. It was a mess.
• CROWD | Yeah, it's easy to shout down from the press box that the stadium looks half-full or half-empty or whatever. We have food and (some) warmth up here, so this will probably fall on deaf and freezing ears. But, man, it looked sad. There was an announced attendance of 47,683 — the lowest number of the season — but even that seemed way high. There were huge swathes of empty seats in the upper deck and, especially, beyond the end zones. And, yes, fans, DL Kyle Rose stood up for you in the way he is supposed to. He said he knew it would be like that tonight because: 1. It's cold. 2. Students are on break. 3. It's a Thursday. 4. It's still cold. But, gee dangit, it's a nationally telivised game against a top-15 team — I know WVU fans got spoiled by having Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State all at home — so come on out and enjoy the show! Rose said he understood why it was empty but wishes it weren't that way for the seniors in their home finale. Holgorsen didn't want to answer the question of whether he was disappointed by the crowd, so he said he was "disappointed to lose by six points." Which, sure. Here's a timelapse of the 90 minutes before the game. You can't see the empty end zones. I should have left the video on through the first half and halftime, because that's when the exodus occured, with brake lights as far as the eye can see leading away from the stadium. A real shame, man.
• SPECIAL TEAMS | We've seen some special kinds of special-teams blunders this season, and tonight may have taken the cake. Maybe. First, there was P Nick O'Toole booming one from the back of his own end zone to the West Virginia 43. Not great, but you can't ask for too much from the back of the end zone. But, wait, apparently there was an itty-bitty problem with the kick. “Horrible punt,” Holgorsen said. “Our whole team went right and he mishit it left. I could have scored.” Holgorsen didn't score, but WR Tyler Lockett did, returning it easily up the right sideline for a touchdown. And then, later, PR Vernon Davis, the latest victim on punt returns, made his first major gaffe by coming up on a bouncing punt and, despite three defenders standing around him, trying to field it. He muffed the punt and Kansas State recovered. Oh, shoutout to Justin Arndt, who forced the kickoff/punt team's first takeaway of the season. #littlevictories
• ONE HALF | West Virginia played one half of football again. They did the same thing against Texas. Remember? DC Tony Gibson sat in the media room in Austin, Texas, and said his defense would have been better off sitting on the bus during the first half. And, here again, West Virginia didn't show up in the first half. Here's Holgorsen: “Offense was garbage. I thought defense was very below average. Special teams were horrendous.” Here's OC Shannon Dawson: “Everybody failed in the first half and really put us in a hole.” And, yes, he's implicating himself there, too.
• TURNOVERS | This has become the strangest and strongest storyline late in the season. Goodness me, what does this team need to do to hold onto the ball? West Virginia entered the game -13 in turnover margin. Only Georgia State (-18) was worse. And Georgia State is barely an FBS football team. Can we all just think for a second and try to comprehend a -13 turnover margin? That's almost impossibly bad for a team that is bowl-bound. In 2012, West Virginia was a +7 in turnover margin (13 turnovers, 20 takeaways). In 2013 it was -4 (32 turnovers, 28 takeaways). So far before Thursday, they were -13 (22 turnovers, nine takeaways). Amazingly, those numbers got worse tonight. West Virginia turned the ball over four times — its 23rd-26th of the season, good for third-most in FBS. The Mountaineers were -3 in turnover margin, sinking to -16 on the season. I can't even.
And what's the worst about all these little issues? West Virginia lost this dadgum game by six points. Let's count back: Smallwood fumble (-7 WVU points); Lambert missed field goal (-3 WVU); punt return touchdown (+7 KSU); Trickett pick at KSU 12 (-7 WVU); Davis muffed punt (+3 KSU). Granted, K Matthew McCrane only hit four of six field goals, but point is: there were points to be had. Easy ones. And despite Kansas State's complete inability to put West Virginia away in the second half — they settled for three field goals — West Virginia just put itself too far behind the 8-ball to make it matter.
Eager to hear your thoughts, whether you went (left early or stayed late) or watched from home.
Stephen J. Nesbitt:
and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.