In so many familiar ways, WVU bumbled away opportunities against the Wolfpack. It turned the ball over five times, made critical special teams errors and made life generally more difficult for the team’s stout defense, which finally allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points for the first time all season.
As they had throughout most of the first 12 games of the season, the Mountaineer defenders did yeoman’s work -- even while facing a daunting athlete in N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after he went 28-of-45 for 275 yards and two touchdowns and added another 41 yards rushing.
But Wilson didn’t need to do all that much to put points on the board. Of the five scoring drives for the Wolfpack, three totaled 20 yards or fewer.
They were set up by a 46-yard kickoff return by T.J. Graham (which immediately followed WVU’s only score of the game), a fumble on a bad exchange between Geno Smith and Tavon Austin that N.C. State recovered at the WVU 26-yard line, and a punt that Jock Sanders muffed at the Mountaineers’ 9-yard line and was picked up by the Wolfpack in the fourth quarter.
Those three miscues led to North Carolina State scoring drives of 20, five and seven yards, respectively. Add in a pair of missed field goals from kicker Tyler Bitancurt (who finished 2010 at only 2-of-7 on attempts from beyond 40 yards out), and even another heroic effort from the Mountaineers’ highly-ranked defense wasn’t enough.
“Just got to do better protecting the ball,” said Smith, a sophomore. “We knew all year if we didn’t turn it over, we wouldn’t lose. Unfortunately, the games we’ve lost, we turned it over and put our defense in bad situations.”
In the end, it was those mistakes (the same ones that had cost West Virginia dearly in losses to Syracuse and Connecticut) and not outside distractions that doomed the Mountaineers to failure in Tuesday night’s contest at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Distractions, in the form of WVU athletic director Oliver Luck’s decision to force out head coach Bill Stewart after the 2011 season, were widely dismissed by players and coaches as even possibly having an impact on the Champs Sports Bowl.
But if program outsiders weren’t creating those distractions by asking players and coaches about that story, which includes the ouster of offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen (who coached his last game at WVU on Tuesday night and, for the first time in his three years on the job, refused reporters’ requests for postgame interviews), some of those who are part of the program were busy making their own.
Running back Shawne Alston admitted after the game that he posted on Facebook in the midst of the team’s halftime break in the locker room. That message read: “2nd half is the best half!!! Let's go!!”
“Yeah, I did. Yeah, that was me,” he said with a smile. “My phone was right beside me...I had a little bit of free time.”
And then there was Smith, who completely denied ESPN’s report that indicated he would again have surgery on his foot in January -- just a year after having a similar procedure.
“I’m not hurt, and we haven’t discussed any surgery right now,” Smith said.
But West Virginia head trainer Dave Kerns confirmed that the surgery will indeed take place, and that all parties involved knew as far back as July that it would occur immediately following the season.
That could possibly limit Smith yet again at the start of spring practice, when new offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen will hope to begin installation of his system.
But Stewart didn’t want to talk about the future, cloudy though it may be, in the immediate aftermath of a second-straight bowl loss and a third-straight 9-4 season as the Mountaineers’ head coach.
“We just got done playing a bowl game,” Stewart said. “I’ll see them Jan. 9, and we’ll start preparations for 2011.”
But for at least one night, the story was totally about 2010, which ended about as poorly as Stewart could have imagined. The team’s seven points were a program-low since Stewart’s first loss as head coach, a 24-3 setback at East Carolina in 2008 that began a years-long building of discord between a segment of the team’s fan-base and the head Mountaineer.
This low-scoring effort ended Mullen’s tenure as offensive coordinator on a sour note and went a long way towards making sure Stewart ended his third year as head coach with a 9-4 record -- the exact same mark as each of his first two seasons in control of the program.
That stagnation, mixed with a general sense of fan apathy (evidenced by the many empty seats Tuesday night, bucking WVU’s reputation for bringing massive crowds that led Florida Citrus Sports to invite the Mountaineers over a 7-5 Notre Dame team), led Luck to make a change at the top of the program.
Some fans have expressed reservations with the way Luck did so, but few will debate the decision itself after another subpar performance that defied expectations for what many see as a supremely talented West Virginia roster.
The early stages were dominated by the Wolfpack. North Carolina State moved the ball seemingly at will in the first quarter, using a plethora of receivers to attack the Mountaineers’ depleted secondary.
Wilson led a 10-play, 86-yard scoring drive on his team’s second possession, capping it off with a 16-yard touchdown toss to Mustafa Greene. N.C. State faced only one third down on the drive and cruised to a quick 7-0 lead.
But despite some solid offensive play on subsequent drives, the Wolfpack couldn’t add to the lead, and West Virginia tied things up when Stedman Bailey made an impressive play to beat his defender for a jump ball on a slightly underthrown pass from Smith. That 32-yard touchdown toss made it 7-7.
N.C. State (9-4) answered back before halftime, driving 20 yards after Graham’s long kickoff return allowed Wilson and the offense to start its drive in WVU territory. Josh Czajkowski kicked a 45-yard field goal to make it 10-7 at the intermission.
“Their kicker made field goals. Ours didn’t,” Stewart said. “That was big. That kind of deflates you a little bit. This loss is not on our kicker, but it deflates you a little bit.”
The Wolfpack placekicker added another two field goals in the third quarter to make it 16-7, and Wilson found Jarvis Williams for a 7-yard touchdown pass after Sanders’ muffed punt late in the fourth quarter to set the final margin.
The red-clad North Carolina State fans in attendance could celebrate, while those in Mountaineer gold and blue filed out silently with many questions about the future of the program.
The answers, of course, will only come with time.