What happened to West Virginia?

It’s a question West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen didn’t particularly want to answer after his team’s 38-14 loss to Syracuse in Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl.

But as the curtain closed, amid a raging snowstorm, on a fruitless 7-6 season that no one could’ve foreseen, it’s one that begged to be asked.

What the heck happened to the Mountaineers?

See, it wasn’t really that long ago, Oct. 6 to be exact, that West Virginia left Austin, Texas, 5-0 following a 48-45 win over the then-No. 11 Longhorns. And when the Mountaineers strolled into Lubbock the following week to play Texas Tech, they were the darlings of college football and the No. 5 team in the country, with some giving them a shot at a BCS title run with enough help from teams at the top.

Led by an offense that hadn’t been stopped and a quarterback who couldn’t even really be slowed down — senior Geno Smith had thrown for 1,996 yards, 24 touchdowns and no interceptions with an 81-percent completion rate to that point — Holgorsen, always considered an offensive mastermind, had a juggernaut on his hands. And all of the preseason proclamations about what his squad wouldn’t be able to do in its first season in the big bad Big 12 seemed moot.

But then the unranked Red Raiders humbled the Mountaineers, handing them their most lopsided loss since 2001, a 49-14 pounding that few outside northwest Texas saw coming. The following week, the Tech loss became West Virginia’s second-most lopsided defeat in that span after a 55-14 loss to No. 4 Kansas State.

At that point, the Mountaineers’ national title hopes had been nixed and their chances at a conference championship had become slim, at best. The Heisman that had already been handed to Smith had been snatched away for good, passed off to Collin Klein, who accounted for seven TDs while Smith had his worst game of the season in the Wildcats’ win in Morgantown.

But at 5-2, the season could still be salvaged — or so they thought.

Instead, however, the Big 12 buzzsaw continued to throttle the Mountaineers, week after week, and three more consecutive losses — a blowout to Oklahoma State sandwiched in between one-point losses to TCU and Oklahoma — left West Virginia 5-5 heading into a visit to Iowa State.

Bounce-back wins over the Cyclones and Kansas helped stop the bleeding, but served as little consolation for Holgorsen and his team — especially after the former Big East rival Orange handed them one, final reminder of how overrated they once were at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

So, again, it begs the question:

What in the world happened, and how do they fix it?

“We’ll evaluate everything and see where we are at,” said Holgorsen, dismissively, when asked what led to the breakdown. “We are in a new position. This is new to us. Syracuse was not new to us, but the conference was new to us. We are going to learn a lot more about what happened in the Big 12 this year. … We have to re-evaluate a lot of things in our program to see what we have to do to get better.”

When Holgorsen was pressed again about where, exactly, he needed to see improvement next year, he was equally cavalier.

“I’m not going to discuss them now,” said the second-year coach, before offering up some unrelated praise for his seniors before returning to the question. “. . . We’re going to take a couple of days off, start recruiting, which is going to eat up about 90 percent, 95 percent of our time over the next month, then we’ll have some time to get back and start working on 2013.”

The idea that Holgorsen was tiptoeing around, and the words he couldn’t quite bring himself to say, were simple, though — though he’d never admit it. While West Virginia’s collapse was startling, it probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. That early five-game window into the Mountaineers’ future wasn’t representative of who they really were. They were just never as good as we thought they were.

“We’re pretty realistic as coaches,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said when asked if he was shocked by the team’s collapse. “I can look at a schedule and see where the meat of the schedule is and where the not-meat of the schedule is. I’m not a complete idiot. … You can look at most programs in America and they start out fast for a reason. Look at our schedule — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

There are a few places people like to point when explaining away West Virginia’s slow swirl down the drain. First of all, as Dawson implied, the schedule got much tougher, and the Mountaineers got far too much credit for beating teams like Marshall, Maryland and James Madison early in the season. Even their win over Texas, who also turned out to be overrated, was fool’s gold in the end.

Then there was the West Virginia defense, which was among the 15 worst in the country in yards allowed and gave up 38 points per game. Even when they were cruising, the Mountaineers were giving up points, and week after week, the defense forced the offense to carry the load. But no one ever really questioned it because West Virginia not stopping anybody was such a well-established M.O.

So most of the blame was shifted to the offense, which, no matter how good it was, was never good enough to accommodate for the defense’s shortcomings — especially against a set of Big 12 defenses that put the Big East defenses they used to know to shame. Smith earned his Heisman praise by playing at a completely unsustainable level, but what we ignored early on was the fact that West Virginia needed him to be otherworldly to win. It just wasn’t tenable for him — or anyone — to play at that level long-term,

Even when Smith "cooled off" he was still impressive, and finished the season with more than 4,000 yards, 42 TD passes and just six interceptions. And Smith may still be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft — and that’s to say nothing of receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who are both among the top-10 wideouts in the draft class, with Austin being a potential first-round pick.

The offense was good — really good — but angry fans need someone to blame, and opposing fans need someone to chide, so Smith, as the face of the unit, caught the brunt of it.

“I can’t really sway people’s opinions of me,” Smith said after Saturday’s loss. “Everyone has their own opinion. People are going to like me, people are going to dislike me — that’s just the way the world works.

“Every time I take the field for practice, workouts, even games, I’m going to give it my all and make sure that I put my best foot forward. My career as a whole, I like to think that I did some pretty good things, almost got 100 touchdowns, less than 20 interceptions. I think that’s a pretty good career.”

In truth, Saturday’s game was probably a perfect encapsulation of Smith’s — and the Mountaineers’ — entire season, really. In his final college game, Smith completed 16-of-24 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the bitter cold of an unyielding snowstorm, and outplayed Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib head to head.

Unfortunately, West Virginia failed to take advantage of a couple tailor-made opportunities, and the offense went 0 for 10 on third down in the slush. The struggles were even more egregious on defense, however, where the Mountaineers allowed ‘Cuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley (215 yards, two touchdowns) to run rampant and gave up 376 of their 512 yards on the ground.

But that’s just how West Virginia rolls, and that’s why they’re left with little to say when asked how 5-0 became 7-6. They’re a team that’s great for the Big East but a mess in the Big 12, and until they stop ignoring the real reason this season fell apart — a terrible defense and an unfair reliance on a great offense — it won’t get any better.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.