Question of Timing

There's a stop and start pattern to football practices between the end of the regular season and January bowl games which can throw teams out of their normal routines. Coaches try to minimize that effect as much as possible, but the fact that the next game is often a month and not a week away means that there are differences in preparation.

How does that affect offenses, such as West Virginia's that rely heavily on timing?

First, a couple of notes on this topic as it relates to offense. It affects everything, from simple dive plays to the most exotic of trick plays or five receiver sets. Even on a plain hand-off, the quarterback and running back must hit their marks on time in order to make a smooth exchange – otherwise the play will be off-kilter from the start. It only gets more important in the passing game, where receiver routes, quarterback drops and throws all have to be executed with split-second precision. And plays such as WVU's bat/pass jet sweep from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin? One mistake and it's a lost down.

As West Virginia prepared for the Orange Bowl, it had to work to regain and retain that timing without wearing out its players. Wide receivers coach Shannon Dawson was mindful of both aspects of pre-bowl work when considering the problem of getting timing back on track.

"There's been times where we've had weeks off in the past, and we've came back and played great.  There's been times where we had weeks off and came back and we couldn't complete a ball," Dawson said. " Right now it's kind of hard to tell because we're not doing a lot of reps with the limited number of kids we have. We're just trying to stay healthy for the game.  And so we're not really taking a lot of reps versus our defense, stuff that we've done throughout the course of the year."

That response, naturally, begs the question: Why not run more reps to make sure timing is set correctly? Again, the answer lies in the limited numbers of players WVU has available. Injuries (Brad Starks and Connor Arlia are out, and others have missed practice time) and simple short numbers mean that Dawson has to watch the players to make sure they don't get burned out.

"It affects us in the sense that the way we organize practice, I mean, receivers are running and catching balls continuously throughout the course of the practice.  And so you'd really like to have at least three -- ideally four -- at each position, just so they don't die.  We've had two.  You know, we've had two at each position.  If you just do the math, that doubles their reps at practice.

"So, we've had to do a really good job of just slowing down periods and keeping them fresh. I just talked to Tavon [Austin] and talked to the guys, and their legs are tired.  I mean, they're honest; I can tell their legs are tired.  You've just got to do a good job of gauging that.  But with the limited number of kids we have, it hurts the reps at practice more than anything.

Austin, for his part, puts on a brave front. He said he feels as if the timing is there in the passing game, and that the irregular breaks in practice didn't hurt much. He believes that the handful of practices in Florida served to put WVU on track quite nicely, and that the Mountaineers will be ready to go when they hit the field.

There's also the matter of getting backups, who were little used before the Orange Bowl, into the mix. Andrew Buie should see some carries in a backup role, so he and quarterback Geno Smith need to get their steps and mesh points down right. J.D. Woods, who dug himself a hole with lax practice and workout habits for much of the season, emerged against USF and figures to have a role in the Orange Bowl as well, but he too will be a focus of those looking at the efficiency of the offense right of that bat.

That figures to be key in what is predicted to be a high-scoring Orange Bowl. Neither offense can afford to give away the first few possessions while it tries to get back in sync, and the attack that can put points on the board first could give its team a big advantage right out of the game.

In the end, however, it's all still a guessing game as to how ready a team is to play. Dawson, who's frank and open with his responses, admitted that was the final answer to all of the questions about preparation, timing and readiness.

"I'll tell you that at halftime on the fourth," he said with a laugh.  "I really don't know. If I had to answer to that, I'd put it in a bottle and sell it to every coach in America.  When the bullets start flying on the fourth, I think everybody in this room will be able to tell."

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