By JOHN RABY
AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN – West Virginia was in the Big East and Dana Holgorsen was a first-year head coach the last time the Mountaineers won 10 games in a season.
Five years into its membership in the Big 12, No. 14 West Virginia has a chance to do it again.
Not many outside the team’s inner circle thought there was a chance that could happen.
Not with a defense that returned only a few starters from a year ago. And certainly not as one running back after another went down with midseason injuries, only to have others step in and thrive.
The Mountaineers (9-2, 6-2) have finally moved into the league’s upper tier. And while turnover-riddled losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma took it out of the title chase, West Virginia can reach win No. 10 in the regular-season finale Saturday at home against Baylor (6-5, 3-5).
Holgorsen, for one, knows what 10 wins could mean for a program that isn’t considered to be in the forefront of the national title picture every year and was picked to finish seventh in the league this season.
“It’s big. We understand that,” Holgorsen said. “Great for the program. It doesn’t happen very often. That gives us some motivation moving forward to play this game to the best of our ability.”
It helps that West Virginia’s success came during a down year in the Big 12 with recent powers Baylor and TCU now in the middle of the pack and Texas toward the bottom. But that doesn’t discount the strides the Mountaineers have made in a season in which Holgorsen’s job security has been under scrutiny.
Part of that winning formula has been not buying into what outsiders say about the program.
“With the two losses, after each loss not panicking and continuing to work and continue to get better throughout the season, (we) continue to want to prove people wrong,” linebacker Justin Ardnt said.
WVU has recorded 10 wins only eight times in program history. Three of those came under Rich Rodriguez from 2005-2007.
Holgorsen did it in 2011 in West Virginia’s final season in the Big East behind his version of the Air Raid offense.
But that wasn’t a springboard for success when West Virginia moved up to the Big 12 the following year. Building depth is something Holgorsen learned quickly was needed in the new league. His defenses were forced to use freshmen in starting roles and were frequently picked apart.
“We took our lumps earlier in Big 12 play and we knew it was going to take some time to be able to get our depth the right way, to be able to build the roster the right way,” he said. “We’ve been heading in that direction for the last three years.”
Saturday’s game will mark the final home one for 21 seniors.
Arndt remembers arriving at WVU as a walk-on and the team’s struggles of his first few seasons, including a 4-8 mark as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Now he’s a first-year starter and leads the team with 71 tackles.
“I didn’t think we’d make it this far at all — definitely accomplished a lot and exceeded expectations,” Arndt said. “You look at what people thought we were going to be and the expectations, it really just puts in reality how far we’ve come.”