STILLWATER, Okla. -- West Virgina's struggles manifested in yet another way Saturday, as the team's losing streak reached four games with one special teams gaffe after the next.
The Mountaineers lost, 55-34, to Oklahoma State, as the Cowboys scored 17 points directly off of what coach Dana Holgorsen called "junior high mistakes" on special teams.
And it may cost far more than a single loss.
The hot team with a No. 5 ranking and 5-0 start is now in jeopardy of not becoming bowl eligible after falling to 5-4, 2-4 in the Big 12 Conference, with three games left and needing one more win.
It had been more than a decade -- 2001 -- since the program last lost four in a row.
"We can't make very, very, very simple mistakes, junior high mistakes, and beat a good football team," Holgorsen said. "When you make junior high mistakes, you're not going to win very many games.
"It's really disappointing to see a bunch of guys who try hard. Incredibly deflating."
West Virginia gave up a 96-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, fumbled a punt and a return on a kickoff that led directly to a field goal and a touchdown, then failed to down a punt at the Oklahoma State 1 in the fourth quarter, which resulted in a touchback.
The Cowboys drove 80 yards to score again.
Seven West Virginia players were standing around the ball as it bounced into the end zone.
"It was bad. I understand how bad it was. We took a step forward on some cover teams last week and then took a step back here tonight," Holgorsen said. "The return issues we had are just flat out unacceptable.
"We knew they were going to spray it all over the place. When you hang it up in the wind I understand it's tough, but I don't know how to coach that. The ball comes to you, you get it. ... The ball hits the ground, everybody in the country, starting in junior high, says 'Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter,' get away from the ball. I can't explain that. I have no answers for that. Special teams obviously we flat out gave them 17 points. That itself is probably the biggest difference in the game."
The most troubling point for the team was that the offense started to show flashes of its old glory, scratching its way back from deficits of 14-0 and 31-17 and was within a score late in the third quarter following an interception by Terence Garvin that set up the offense on the 1.
Smith ran it in, and West Virginia trailed, 38-34, with 5:20 to go in the third quarter.
Stedman Bailey had 225 receiving yards on 14 catches and a touchdown, which amounted to his most productive game since hurting his ankle against Texas Tech.
He said a cortisone shot to his injured left ankle along with treatment helped him reach nearly 100 percent health.
Smith, who wasn't exactly perfect, had a strong game, completing 36 of 54 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns.
West Virginia outgained Oklahoma State, 479-443, in total yards but was still undone.
The team's new goal?
"We just want to make sure we get in a bowl game," Bailey said.
Of the two gaffes on coverage teams, the strangest came with the Cowboys holding a 28-14 lead with 4:33 to go until halftime.
The Cowboys squibbed the kickoff, and the ball bounced off a West Virginia player's leg then Andrew Buie's helmet before Oklahoma State recovered on the Mountaineers 14.
The Cowboys went four plays and kicked a 26-yard field goal.
The second, a fumbled punt, came with West Virginia trailing by a touchdown in the third quarter.
Oklahoma State recovered an onside kick attempt by West Virginia and drove to the Mountaineers 39 before Quinn Sharp punted.
The ball bounced, hitting Tavon Austin, and was recovered by Oklahoma State's Teddy Johnson at the West Virginia 12.
It took the Cowboys four plays to score again and go up, 38-24.
"I waved it off. The way it was kicked, looked like it would go out of bounds, but it bounced back my way, hit me and they had a good play on it," Austin said.wvusports
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com or 412-263-1959.