CHARLESTON, West Virginia — West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has a simple message for his players as they wrap up a disappointing season: Win one for the seniors.
Hobbled by injuries on defense and coming off a bye week and an embarrassing road loss to Kansas, the Mountaineers (4-7, 2-6 Big 12) have little more than pride as a motivator when they meet Iowa State (2-9, 1-7) on Saturday in Morgantown.
After that, the season will be done for both teams. The Mountaineers saw their 11-year streak of going to bowls snapped with the 31-19 loss at Kansas on Nov. 16. Iowa State isn't going to a bowl for the first time since 2010.
"Our job as coaches and players is to go out Saturday and put our best foot forward," Holgorsen said. "This year is different because there's not a bowl game, so this is the last week we will spend together. We have to make it count."
West Virginia's bowl streak entering the 2013 season was tied with Wisconsin and Boise State for the seventh longest in the Bowl Subdivision.
As Holgorsen and the team recall the careers of West Virginia's 14 seniors, there are multiple memories to fall back on — just not too many good ones from this season.
"There are 14 guys leaving us this year, and I appreciate them," Holgorsen said. "They're a collection of guys that have been through a lot of adversity. They've been through coaching changes and conference changes, and I appreciate everything they've gone through. I'm proud of how they're doing academically."
There was West Virginia's 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl after the 2011 season, and a 70-63 win over Baylor in the Mountaineers' Big 12 debut in 2012, only soon to be followed by five straight conference losses. There also was a 30-21 win over No. 7 Oklahoma State, the Cowboys' only loss this season.
"It has to be the Orange Bowl — everything about the Orange Bowl," senior linebacker Tyler Anderson said of his top memory. "Everything about that week and that experience was amazing."
West Virginia fans remember how that game turned in the Mountaineers' favor when linebacker Doug Rigg stripped the ball from Clemson's Andre Ellington at the goal line. Safety Darwin Cook returned the fumble 99 yards for a touchdown, then knocked over the Orange Bowl mascot in the end zone.
"I hope people still remember it when I'm gone," said Cook, a senior.
None of those games rank at the top for defensive tackle Shaq Rowell, who points to a 21-20 win over Pittsburgh in the final Backyard Brawl in 2011.
"I'm from Cleveland, so I hate everything about Pitt," he said. "Beating Pitt — I'll never forget that."
The seniors also endured the messy split of former coach Bill Stewart in June 2011, the transition of Holgorsen to head coach six months after he was hired as offensive coordinator, and Stewart's death from a heart attack in May 2012. Some of the players also have seen multiple position coaches.
None of them have seen a season finish at WVU in November — until now.
"You can sit there and try to prepare the guys throughout the season, but until that last game finally gets here, you can see reality is staring them right in the face — this is it," said West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. "This is the last time you're going to be able to run out on the field as a Mountaineer. A sense of urgency kicks in, and I think they see that this is the end."