West Virginia notebook: Mountaineers go to different finishing school

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s four-win 2013 season was nothing short of a disappointment, but the Mountaineers weren’t as far from pay dirt as their record might suggest.

They held fourth-quarter leads against Texas Tech, Texas and Iowa State before losing in regulation, overtime and triple overtime. Flip two of those outcomes around and West Virginia’s bowl streak would still be alive.

So it’s no surprise that when coach Dana Holgorsen was asked how often he talks to his players about finishing close games, he replied, “A ton.”

“That’s one of our goals, to get better at finishing,” Holgorsen said Monday before the Mountaineers’ fifth fall practice, the first in full pads. “That was frustrating last year. There’s nothing more frustrating for myself and the team than when you sit in the locker room after losing an overtime game or losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead.”

The coaches harp on “finishing” often, Holgorsen said, and they implement it into the players’ daily routines — finishing routes, finishing reps, finishing practices. Maybe the better question, then, is: How tired are you of talking about close games?

“It’s better than getting your [butt] kicked,” Holgorsen said, laughing. “We’re in a good conference. There’s going to be close games. That’s the beauty of the situation we’re in with the Big 12.”

Holgorsen compared the Mountaineers’ plight last season to their Orange Bowl season in 2011, when West Virginia closed the regular season with five consecutive games decided by 10 points or fewer.

“There was a lot of close games that year, too, but we had some experienced and talented guys who were able to close those games out the appropriate way,” he said.

Players-coaches togetherness

There’s plenty of reason for optimism this fall, Holgorsen said, and he helpfully pointed to three specific reasons: more returning players, more returning coaches and, for the first time, the intersection of the two this summer.

Under a new rule, the NCAA allowed coaches to meet with players for up to two hours per week. Holgorsen’s staff was able to meet with newcomers and key them in to offensive and defensive schemes well before fall camp.

Holgorsen said he has noticed a difference “in everyone” when it comes to their level of preparation entering the fall. He said he had campaigned for the NCAA to allow such interaction for several years.

“The downside is there’s not a lot of separation time between coaches and players, and everybody gets sick of each other at times,” Holgorsen said. “You’ve got to be careful. We didn’t wear them out. We didn’t get around them too much. It’s something we campaigned for, and I’m glad it went through.”

Not looking ahead — yet

Twenty-five days out from West Virginia’s season opener against Alabama in Atlanta, Holgorsen said the Mountaineers are not looking that far ahead. He admitted, though, that his job will get harder after Week 1, win or lose.

“I doubt we’ll be overlooking that one,” Holgorsen said.

After Alabama, ranked No. 2 in the preseason coaches’ poll, come two more top-10 opponents in No. 3 Oklahoma (Sept. 20) and No. 10 Baylor (Oct. 18). Also ranked were No. 21 Kansas State and No. 24 Texas.

“I don’t pay any attention to the rankings,” Holgorsen said. “Don’t pay any attention to what they think about us at this point, either. Our guys know what the schedule is. We play in one of the most challenging conferences in the country and arguably have the toughest schedule in the country. They know that, and they view it as an opportunity to have a good year.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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