The Antagonist Within

The offense got the accolades, the defense the dissection in the opening win. But it's the third side of the ball that deserves the most examination against James Madison on Saturday.

With respect to West Virginia's Air Raid and 3-4, success is mostly determined by reaction to - and ability to overcome – the opposition. There's an aspect of self-challenge in execution and fundamental play. But for West Virginia's third "side of the ball," as head coach Dana Holgorsen calls it, the challenge this weekend is far more against itself than its foe in many areas.

The offense rolled up yardage, and its most recent foe, in near-record numbers and, frankly, is expected to do so again in game two. The defense gets an overmatched opponent for some needed time to improve and gain more live, in-game action. There's not much reason those two sides should not win their respective areas in solid fashion. Special teams, however, stands alone in its uniqueness of being as much about overcoming self – self-inflicted wounds, self-destructive plays – than any direct adversary. The antagonist has been itself.

Consider the missed extra point in the 69-34 win over Marshall. That was West Virginia beating West Virginia. With respect to nearly any team across all of college football, an extra point should not be missed. One could line up the Maine Bears against the Baylor Bears and the point-after should be executed. The bet here is Savannah State, if it ever scores, will make the extra point even if it's against the Miami Hurricanes or the Miami Dolphins. It's not as much a question, then, of beating a foe as beating yourself.

There's no other area of the game in which that's paramount. That holds for punt execution as well. Certainly, the dynamics of that are slightly different. More athletic, more skilled, more sizeable teams will, on occasion, block punts. But it's the exception rather than the rule. Generally, teams should be able to get the kick off against almost any opponent. In the opener, though, West Virginia struggled with this most basic of special teams play. And its punt wasn't just blocked, it was absolutely blown up, from the blocking scheme to the kick that never was.

And here's a bit of coincidence. Marshall even ran its 11th player, C.J. Crawford, on late. And it was Crawford who blocked the punt. He didn't come from the side. Crawford lined up just to the left of the center and wasn't picked up by the middle player in the secondary line of defense. One rush and outstretched left arm later, and the ball barely got off Corey Smith's foot. Marshall recovered at WVU's nine-yard line and – boom – two plays later the Herd had their second touchdown of the game.

West Virginia had just two recorded punts all game. Two, for an average of 22.5 yards per punt, a 9.5-yard net. For a player like Smith, who admittedly is trying to psychologically build after a difficult 2011 season, the game and play couldn't have inspired significant confidence. Keep in mind that WVU never attempted a field goal. That's what happens when the offense rolls – with defensive help – to what should have been 70 points. It's not a bad thing of itself. But the Mountaineers need to get in some live game placekicking. And not of the 20-yard PAT type.

That's why this weekend's game is so imperative for West Virginia's special teams units. It's a chance to practice some placekicking, some punting. It reads here that even Holgorsen himself might desire a stopped drive or two, late in the game, where WVU could drill its punt or placekicking units. The special teams play wasn't bad overall. There was plenty of kick coverage, the unit managing to hold Marshall to just 20 yards per return on eight tries. WVU had five returns for an 18.4-yard average. The Herd's two punt returns netted 26 yards, a very good average but nothing alarming after a single game. And Smith's lone actual punt netted 45 yards. By all accounts, the senior has kicked very well in fall drills and practice. He punted well in the game, when he got the punt off.

But there's that nagging, looming feeling that this team could well use another "tune-up" game for special teams, maybe a couple games. The schedule allows that opportunity this week. So, between the expected awesome offensive display and the eagle-eyes paid the defense, keep a watch – literally, if you'd like, and figuratively – on special teams. Try to diagnose the four elements: Snap, Hold, Protection, Kick. Check the snap-to-punter timing – it should be less than ¾ a second. The handling time, the time it takes the punter to take the snap and execute the kick, is about 1.2 seconds, making to the total time from snap to punt-away approximately two seconds. Similar timing on a placekick is 1.25 seconds. For the record, WVU was solid in this aspect against Marshall. The blocked punt was a protection issue, the missed PAT a simple shank.

See if the blocking can hold and how players handle assignments and effort in a game. Is the placekick too low? Is there the proper – and even a novice fan can get a grasp on this – rhythm to the pace? Does the play seem disjointed, rushed, the movements erratic instead of smooth? It should resemble more a ballet than a mosh pit. Picking up issues within the punt and kickoff coverage can be a bit more difficult. Seeing that the entire field is covered, that players stay in their lanes once the kick is sufficiently away and high, and how well the team tackles as a whole are primary concerns. Beyond that, it becomes a blur of who-was-assigned-what, who busts any wedge-like blocks (true wedge blocks are now illegal), who keeps leverage and contain.

This is a big weekend for special teams, far bigger than it is even for the defense. One hopes they better themselves, in the process of besting the opposition.


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