Oliver Luck doesn’t have a set number of wins in mind from his football team this season. But the West Virginia athletic director wants improvement from coach Dana Holgorsen’s program after the Mountaineers went 4-8 in their second season in the Big 12.
“What I certainly want to see,” Luck told ESPN.com this week, “and I think I’m speaking for a large portion of our fans – is improvement in our competitiveness, our ability to move the ball, our ability to stop the ball, all aspects of the game.”
Two years ago, West Virginia entered the Big 12 with plenty of momentum following a 37-point whitewashing of Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. But the Mountaineers have struggled in their new conference under Holgorsen, who is entering a pivotal fourth year as head coach.
After a quick start and jumping into the top five of the polls in 2012, West Virginia collapsed down the stretch, losing six of its final eight games.
Last season, the Mountaineers won only one game after September and lost at Kansas, which had lost 27 consecutive Big 12 games. Two weeks later in the season finale, West Virginia blew a 24-point lead and fell in triple overtime to Iowa State before the third-smallest crowd in Milan Puskar Stadium’s 34-year history.
“We at times played well last year,” said Luck, referencing the Mountaineers’ upset victory over then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, and their comeback overtime win at TCU. “Other times we didn’t play well, and there were more other times than times we were playing well. We lost a couple of tight games we could have won. … But then take a look at the Baylor game. They just walked through us like a warm knife through butter.
“At the end of the day, it’s about improvement. I want to see us play harder, play meaner, play smarter and be more competitive.”
Luck, however, is optimistic the Mountaineers will be meaner, smarter and more competitive in 2014. They welcome back seven starters on both sides of the ball, and a host of veteran players who now have two years of experience playing in the Big 12.
“I do think we are better,” Luck said. “The coaching staff has recruited well. We’ve got a bunch of kids coming off a redshirt year I think will be contributors for us. I think this is the first year, where everyone on the two-deep has been to all the venues in the Big 12.
“So I’m very confident going into this year. I think we have some solid players. I think we’ve developed the depth we’ve needed in the Big 12.”
Luck is also excited about what the addition of Tom Bradley could mean for a West Virginia defense that has ranked eighth and ninth in the Big 12 the last two years and gave up an average of 47 points in its losses. Bradley, who coached under Joe Paterno at Penn State for more than three decades, led the Nittany Lions to six straight top-15 finishes in total and scoring defense nationally from 2004-09. Bradley was also an assistant on two national championship teams.
“His nickname is ‘Scrap,’ and that’s the way he is,” Luck said. “The kids will feed off that. The good news really to me is his relationship with Tony Gibson is very strong. Gibby is a (defensive coordinator) for the first time. Tom has been in that chair for decades. I think the two of them will work very well together. It’s not often we welcome a Penn State guy, but we’ve embraced him.”
Yet despite Luck’s optimistic outlook, getting back to a bowl game this season won’t be a cinch. The Mountaineers have one of the toughest schedules of any team in the country this year, and it will kick off with a neutral-site clash against Alabama in Atlanta. All told, West Virginia will face six teams that at one time or another ranked in the top 15 last season.
Luck reiterated he wouldn’t “lay any objective standards” on Holgorsen, such as getting back to a bowl game. But after two lackluster Big 12 seasons, Luck admitted the time is now for Holgorsen and the Mountaineers to show improvement.
“I think Dana has done a good job, but clearly, the results last year didn’t meet the expectations both he has and his staff has and certainly I have and our fan base has,” Luck said. “It is a transition going into a new conference; there’s no question about that. I think people understand that. But they also don’t want to hear that as an excuse, and they’re absolutely right in that regard. Every year is important with the cycles nowadays, and this is certainly an important year for him.”