CHARLESTON- West Virginia's prospects of regaining any momentum in the Big East race could hinge on shoring up its special teams.
Lately, the Mountaineers have been anything but special.
There have been missed and blocked field goals. Botched extra points. Shanked punts. Long kickoffs allowed, and not many punt returns of their own.
"It's universal," said Steve Dunlap, West Virginia's special teams coach on punts and kickoffs. "I mean, at times we play really well. Sometimes we don't. If we had all the answers we could fix it right away, so obviously we don't. We just need to play a complete game."
West Virginia (6-3 overall, 2-2 Big East) can't afford to have more of the same gaffes on Saturday in what's being viewed as a must-win game at No. 23 Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0).
"It's aggravating that it's a combination of stuff," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Coaching-wise, we'll take the blame for half of it and playing-wise they have to take the blame for half of it as well."
Many special teams problems boiled over last week in the Mountaineers' 38-35 loss to Louisville.
In the second half, Tyler Bitancurt missed a 33-yard field goal try and later had a short attempt blocked by the Cardinals' Adrian Bushell. Louisville's Andrew Johnson scooped up the ball and went 82 yards for a touchdown.
Holgorsen said the 13-point swing on the field-goal unit could have been blamed for the loss, but he said West Virginia could have overcome those mistakes with better effort in other areas.
The block "was more about them making a play than anything," Holgorsen said. "I give their kid credit for making that play. We had opportunities to make that same play, and we didn't."
West Virginia thought it had its punting problems fixed when freshman Michael Molinari replaced the inefficient Corey Smith five games into the season.
Against Louisville, Molinari had shanks of 12 and 11 yards. After the second one, Louisville drove 56 yards for the tying touchdown just before halftime.
Holgorsen hopes the punting situation gets settled in practice this week. If West Virginia had to punt again against Louisville, Smith would've had his job back.
Molinari "had a bad day, which doesn't mean I'm going to pull the plug on him," Holgorsen said. "But it means that he's got to get back to work. We'll go ... and try to figure out who gives us the best position to flip the field."
The special team problems don't stop there.
West Virginia hasn't attempted any punt returns in four games this season, including in the last two, leaving the offense with that much more of a field to navigate. Cincinnati presents a similar problem - the Bearcats' Pat O'Donnell is among the nation's top punters at more than 45 yards per attempt.
On kickoffs, the Mountaineers rank near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed and has given up two kickoff returns for scores. Holgorsen has tried using more starters on kickoffs with some success.
"We've practiced special teams as much as anywhere I've been to focus on these things," Holgorsen said. "One of the things that comes up quite a bit is depth, which everyone has depth issues. We won't make any excuses for that. You've got to play with what you've got, and if you don't like that, then you need to get to work in recruiting and make it a little better."
The one bright spot on special teams against Louisville came when West Virginia's Brad Starks returned the opening kickoff 62 yards to set up a short touchdown drive. But Starks injured a knee in the second quarter and will miss the final three games of the regular season.
It's just another setback West Virginia didn't need.
"We've put ourself in a situation where we have no wriggle room," Dunlap said. "''It's got to be total focus on playing Cincinnati and doing everything in our power to win that game."