Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: West Virginia won its first two games of the 2011 campaign rather easily, but a 37-31 triumph over Maryland wound up being closer than many expected. Still, at 3-0 the Mountaineers were feeling pretty good about their chances as they played host to SEC power LSU on Sept. 24. That game turned out to a laugher in favor of the Tigers who prevailed in a 47-21 final.
First-year head coach Dana Holgorsen got his team back on track though, as WVU blasted both Bowling Green (55-10) and Connecticut (43-16), the latter being in the Big East Conference opener. Then came a surprising 49-23 loss at Syracuse, which put a serious damper on any plans the Mountaineers had at challenging for the national title. A 10-point win over Rutgers followed, but the team would suffer its third setback of the season against visiting Louisville (38-35) a week later.
West Virginia went on to win the final three games of the regular season over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida, although it did so by a total of only seven points. With a 9-3 record (5-2 in conference), the Mountaineers found themselves as co-champions in the Big East and were rewarded with the league's automatic BCS Bowl bid as the highest ranked of the three conference champs. They faced Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and the game couldn't have been more one-sided as WVU routed the Tigers in a 70-33 final.
OFFENSE: Coming off his record-setting performance in the Orange Bowl, senior QB Geno Smith is poised to lead the Mountaineers to even greater heights as the team embarks on its inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference. Smith, who threw six TD passes against Clemson, completed 65.8 percent of his passes last year, logging 4,385 yards, 31 TDs and only 7 INTs.
Holgorsen is obviously thrilled to have someone like Smith running his offense, but doesn't believe he's a complete product just yet.
"He progressed and he's got a chance to be pretty good," He went on to say, "Ultimately he's going to be remembered for how many games he can win, and Geno's got the ability to make everybody else around him better."
Senior WR Tavon Austin, who caught four TD passes in the Orange Bowl, is back after hauling in 101 balls for 1,186 yards and 8 scores last year, as is junior Stedman Bailey who finished with 72 grabs for 1,279 yards and 12 TDs.
The right side of the offensive line returns in tact, but there is an air of uncertainty with regard to the guys in the trenches as they prepare to battle the bigger, stronger, faster and more talented defenses that are commonplace in the Big 12.
The run game took a hit with the serious knee injury suffered late last year to leading rusher Dustin Garrison (742 yards, 6 TDs), but the hope is senior Shawne Alston (416 yards, 12 TDs) will be up to the task as he is expected to see the bulk of the carries, at least early on.
DEFENSE: There are some who wonder if the WVU defense will be able to keep pace with the high-octane offenses it will face on a regular basis in the Big 12. Last year, the Mountaineers allowed 26.8 ppg, with opponents outrushing them by 22 ypg (144.8 to 122.7), but the unit allowed just 36 percent success on third- down conversion attempts and did a better job in the second half of games (146 points allowed) than the first (202 points).
The return of six starters should help in terms of continuity, and the secondary is clearly the strength of the unit as senior CB Pat Miller (66 tackles, 2 INTs) and junior safety Darwin Cook (85 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 fumble recoveries) rule the roost.
The linebacking corps, while fine in terms of experience, lacks big-time playmakers. Senior Terence Garvin (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs) and junior Doug Rigg (30 tackles) both started games last year, and the linebackers as a whole will need to play well to help out what is a suspect defensive line. Senior NT Jorge Wright and junior DT Will Clarke combined to make 72 stops in '11, and they, and others, will need to produce at a significantly higher level if the WVU defense is going to be effective in keeping the opposition at bay.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Mountaineers will have the benefit of having a couple of seniors handling the kicking duties, as PK Tyler Bitancourt and P Corey Smith are back to put points on the board and help manage the field position game. Austin is one of the nation's top return men, and he certainly has the ability to take one the distance every time he touches the ball.
OUTLOOK: WVU's non-conference slate features the likes of Marshall, James Madison and Maryland, all regional foes, but then things get interesting as the team begins Big 12 play at home against Baylor. Trips to Texas and Texas Tech are next, followed by home dates with Kansas State and the other new member of the conference, TCU. The waters get even rougher with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma on deck, and the team will get a bit of a break, if you can call it that, when it faces Iowa State and Kansas to close out the regular season.
Holgorsen, who was an assistant at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State prior to coming to Morgantown, was recently given a contract extension through the 2017 season. He is in the process of laying the groundwork for what the Mountaineers hope is a lasting and highly-successful next chapter in their storied history, and he believes his team is going to fit in just fine in its new conference.
"West Virginia is used to winning football games. There's a whole bunch of teams in the Big 12 that are used to winning football games. You fill your stadium up because it's important to the fan base. And everybody in the Big 12 fills their stadium up because it's important to their fan base. It's an exciting time for everybody."