Three-Sided Game

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – West Virginia has been about as inconsistent as it gets on special teams this season.

It has cost the Mountaineers at least one game (Louisville) and won them another two (Cincinnati and South Florida). It also was a major factor in games like LSU, Pittsburgh and Rutgers among others.

While in Miami, West Virginia has made it an emphasis to work on special teams more than I can remember in past bowl games. Head coach Dana Holgorsen is very clear on his goals to win all three phases of the ball.

"It's a three-sided game, and that's the one thing that we learned about a month and a half ago when we lost to Louisville," Holgorsen said. "Our team came together, and on all three sides of the ball we figured out that if all three sides of the ball don't play together and pick each other up to try to be fighting for the same goal, then you're probably not going to win very many games. That's the one thing we did over the course of the last three games was play together."

Much of the talk surrounding the Orange Bowl this year has been about the offenses. Tahj Boyd and Geno Smith. Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin. Dwayne Allen and Stedman Bailey.

Rarely has the talk been about defense or special teams despite the added importance each unit will play when considering both offenses are fairly equal as even the head coaches pointed out on Tuesday.

"When two pretty even teams are playing, it's five or six plays that really determine the outcome of the game. You know, you just don't know when those plays are coming. You have no idea," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

"We try to take the mentality of just play every play like it's a one-play game. You know, win that play and then go to the next one. That's the mentality you really have to have, because, again, you just don't know when the play is coming."

When you look back on the season, the most boos that came from the stands of Milan Puskar Stadium were a result of bad special teams. There were struggles all season with punting and kicking, and the return game, after starting strong, just seemed to go away at times.

Kick returner Tavon Austin said that assistant coach Daron Roberts has made an emphasis to him on catching the ball on punts instead of letting it drop in certain situations.

"Hopefully we can go out there and be smart," Austin said. "From watching on the sidelines this year, I've realized special teams are a huge factor in games. Anybody who does it, I compliment them, because it's one of the harder jobs on the field."

This game will be a whole lot more than offense. There will be a defense filled with 11 players on the other side of these high-powered offenses. And, someone will have to punt and another one will have to catch said punt. Whoever wins those two sides of the ball on Wednesday just might win this game because of it.

That's why West Virginia has put such an emphasis on special teams. It might be the reason the Mountaineers are holding a trophy filled with oranges at about midnight on Wednesday.

"I've learned that you never know when a big play is going to come," Austin said. "You've got to be smart out there."


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