This past Saturday, West Virginia trekked down to Austin and returned home as a team that had been weighed, measured and found worthy in all regards. Whether it was Sam Ehlinger’s best efforts to gash the Mountaineer defense or an officiating crew deploying all manner of absurd rulings on the field, Will Grier and the old gold and blue weathered every obstacle that the football gods could have possibly thrown their way. It wasn’t just a good win on the road, it was a decisive statement to the rest of the Big 12 and, really, the nation that West Virginia is for real.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, it’s hard to think of a single victory during the Dana Holgorsen era that is more critical and carries more weight than the downing of the Longhorns on Saturday. You could possibly make a case for capably besting then no.4 Baylor in 2014 or when the eighth-ranked Mountaineers took down no.11 Texas at Darrell K. Royal in 2012 or replay the tape from the 2012 Orange Bowl when West Virginia put a choke hold on the current juggernaut that is Clemson. Maybe even reference the almost fantastical nature of West Virginia’s Big 12 debut against no. 25 Baylor in which Geno Smith threw for 656 yards and eight TD’s as the Mountaineers just barely held on for a 70-63 win.
You could make an argument in favor of any of those games, but why plead a case that is largely moot? No single victory during Dana Holgorsen’s eight seasons in Morgantown carries the potential implications that Saturday’s win at Texas does. No single win has the potential to not only galvanize a Mountaineer team to run the remainder of its regular season table but also to propel this team into the conversation when the CFP committee assembles to cast its final votes.
No, ultimately there is no argument. This most recent victory over Texas is the defining moment of Dana Holgorsen’s time helming the Mountaineers.
Not even a month ago, the Mountaineers were idling in the college football doldrums. A 30-14 drubbing at the hands of Iowa State, a game that was deemed by almost everyone as very winnable, and a deadfall of a November slate had everyone convinced that West Virginia would stumble through the rest of its schedule and skid to a mediocre finish in 2018.
Oklahoma, at that point, was running away with the conference lead and Texas looked resurgent. With the conference blue bloods now leading from the front and the media dog-piling on a West Virginia team that had effectively outed itself as a charlatan, 2018 seemed destined to be another letdown.
Maybe if it were another unit from the Mountaineers’ recent past, one that lacked the type of leadership that the Will Grier’s and the David Sills’ of the world possess, that would be the case. Had it been any other team, maybe Baylor would have proven to be a classic trap game and would have sent West
Virginia down to Austin, reeling from two straight losses to beatable opponents. Had it been possible any other team from the 2012-2017 span, the combined onslaught of a potent Texas offense and a zebra crew with some very questionable modus operandi would have skewered West Virginia and torpedoed a once-promising season.
Not this team.
Whatever well of confidence and cocksure Dana Holgorsen and his camp stumbled upon after the loss to the Cyclones in Ames, they better be bottling it in mass. If torching Baylor was a verifiable sign of life in the Mountaineers, then absorbing and besting Texas’ best shot on the road proved that this team has rebuilt itself akin to something out of an X-Men storyline.
Not only is the win over Tom Herman’s squad important in and of itself, but it’s also what this win paves the way for that makes it career-defining. Three games remain on West Virginia’s schedule, including a home test against a hobbled TCU squad, a road visit to Stillwater and the all-important home finale against red-hot Oklahoma. Fortunately, the Mountaineers are working off a head of steam and should take care of business against the Horned Frogs this Saturday. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, has had an up and down year and while the ‘Pokes won’t be an easy out, it’s a winnable road contest. The Sooners, finally, guard the door to a title shot in Dallas and present a potential world of trouble with their own legitimate Heisman candidate in Kyler Murray.
This makes the Texas game all the more important for one very simple fact: lose that game, and West Virginia fails yet again to move to that “next” level and is scrambling to figure out the exact identity of its team. But if Texas is a win, as it ultimately was, then those same questions are cast to the breeze and there’s no doubt that winning out and making the trip to Dallas and beyond is a very real thing.
West Virginia didn’t just acquit itself with a 578 yard, five touchdown performance on Saturday, it gazed into the mirror, stared down its own formidable reflection and refused to blink. Running victoriously across the 50-yard line in Austin didn’t just signal a turning point for the season, it might have even signified a turning point for a program that has gotten so close on so many occasions only to fall short.
Name one other time in Dana Holgorsen’s tenure where a win has felt even half as gratifying or cast such a bright light on the potentially bigger things still to come for West Virginia. You can’t.
There’s still plenty of football left to play and West Virginia needs to maintain its current level of poise. The Mountaineers would have to be plum stupid to get caught falling asleep at this point of the season and need to go out and win big against both TCU and Oklahoma State. By the time Oklahoma runs onto the turf on November 23rd, there should be no questions about what West Virginia is made of and what it is capable of. The Texas game should have answered that in resounding fashion.
If West Virginia is about to make an indefinite upward turn and grow as a program, the historians among us will look back on the Mountaineers’ conquest of the Forty Acres the moment it all started. Dana Holgorsen, who has long been suspected of getting out-coached and out-maneuvered in big games, may have just inked an entirely new chapter in his mountain memoir. In the coming weeks, we might be inscribing a season-ending win over Oklahoma or a victorious rematch against the Sooners in Dallas or – heaven forbid – a clash against a Big 10 or SEC opponent as one of the final four left standing as the crown jewel of the Holgorsen era in Morgantown but, at least at this very moment, it’s #hornsdown above all else.