Ranked opponents are (barely) a thorn in West Virginia’s side.
With Saturday’s 31-24 loss at No. 8 TCU, the Mountaineers suffered their ninth straight defeat against a ranked opponent. That means it has been nearly three years since they last beat a top 25 team, which came on Oct. 18, 2014, when they defeated then-No. 4 Baylor, 41-27, in Morgantown and ended the Bears’ bid at the College Football Playoff.
WVU was oh-so-close Saturday, just like in the season-opening 31-24 loss to then-No. 21 Virginia Tech. In that game, it nearly reeled off a big win in front of a primetime audience on a Sunday night.
But junior quarterback Will Grier and company fell just short. From the 15-yard line as time expired, Grier’s pass intended for junior receiver David Sills fell incomplete in the end zone, marking their eighth consecutive loss to a ranked team at the time.
Grier and the offense were given one final chance to even up the contest again, getting the ball back with 2:53 remaining.
However, a (questionable) pass interference call set WVU back to a 1st and 25. The offense gained only seven more yards after that, with Grier’s pass to senior Ka’Raun White dropping incomplete on fourth down and watching TCU run out the clock, making it the program’s ninth straight loss against a team ranked inside the top 25.
Why can’t WVU beat the top teams? And how will that recent trend change?
In both games this season, a handful of plays decided the contests.
There were costly turnovers. There were miscues on special teams. And there were breakdowns on defense, which led to critical big plays for the opponent.
Just look at Virginia Tech. One missed coverage led to a wide open 32-yard score for star receiver Cam Phillips. Another led to a 46-yard run for quarterback Josh Jackson, which put VT at the WVU 2-yard line and helped set up the game-winning score.
A similar tale told the story against TCU. A few plays gave the Horned Frogs the victory.
A turnover on special teams led to a Horned Frogs touchdown. An interception from Grier led to another TCU touchdown. That meant 14 of the 31 points allowed by WVU came off of giveaways.
TCU also scored on a beautifully designed trick play, something Gary Patterson’s teams continually execute. Running back KaVontae Turpin delivered a 48-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Kenny Hill, who spun out WVU linebacker David Long and ran past the rest of the defense for the score late in the third quarter.
What if there was one less turnover? Maybe it goes to overtime, and it’s a different outcome. Maybe WVU records its first win over a ranked opponent since 2014.
What if there weren’t any turnovers? Then WVU likely wins the contest. It outgained TCU 508-406 and held the Horned Frogs - ranked as the top rushing offense in the Big 12 - to their lowest total on the ground this season, even with a 1,000-yard rusher returning for the first time of 2017.
The Mountaineers are competing with some of the top teams. They nearly beat an undefeated TCU team on the road. They nearly beat Virginia Tech.
One could argue they should have at least won one, or possibly both of those. But they came up just short.
All it will take is a couple more plays in WVU’s direction to end the recent skid against ranked opponents, and it will have more opportunities down the road this season against teams like No. 24 Texas Tech, No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 12 Oklahoma.