To Kick...Or Not To Kick

It was a mixed performance for West Virginia's special teams in the 42-12 win over James Madison on Saturday.

The Mountaineers kickoff coverage and point-after and protection schemes were solid. WVU attacked its assignments well and flew around effectively in limiting JMU to 159 yards on seven returns. But the Mountaineers again struggled punting one game after getting a punt blocked near its own goal line. WVU tallied 348 yards to JMU's 99 in the opening half, and limited the Dukes to just one score to essentially put the game away by the break. But the only points, on a 33-yard field goal, were set-up by a 24-yard punt by Corey Smith. There was no extreme pressure on the play, and the other phases of snap and protection, seemed solid. But the ball hooked badly off the senior's foot, and managed just 72 feet before landing out of bounds.

"I would definitely have liked to get another one," Smith said. "I didn't really feel bad on the first one at all. I swung my leg in a little bit on the wide. I went through my keys, and everything felt good leading up to the ball coming off my foot. But definitely, I would have liked to get another one."

He didn't, despite several late-game opportunities. The Mountaineers chose to go for it ahead 42-5 with the reserves in on fourth and 10 with about 11 minutes left in the game. Back-up quarterback Paul Millard's pass to Ivan McCartney sailed over his head, and the chance was gone. The second opportunity, and likely the one that just cried out for another punt, came with six minutes left and WVU facing a fourth and six from their own 33. The Mountaineers took a delay of game, setting up a fourth and 12 from the 38 – and then still went for it by lofting a deep ball down the sideline. Incomplete. Turnover on downs.

"I probably should have punted, but I got stubborn, just like last week," head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "The percentages say whenever you get past the 50, go for it. … When we put out back-ups in, we're not going to stop playing football."

It was the second straight week WVU had issues. Marshall blocked a punt after running on the 11th player – and the one who blocked the punt – late, and the Mountaineers missed an extra point that would have pushed the scoring to 70 points for a second straight game. By themselves, the miscues are nothing major. And, certainly, against foes like James Madison, it won't matter. But West Virginia can ill afford routine poor punts even with solid overall special teams with the Big 12 slate looming.

"Obviously, the more you do something, the better you should get at it," special teams coordinator Steve Dunlap said. "Every year, you have a new faces and new places. There's a lot of moving parts out there. I'd like some practice time. But once you cross the 50, and you're trying to run the clock out, there's nothing wrong with that, either."

West Virginia had just two kickoff returns, one by Tavon Austin for eight yards and another by Stedman Bailey for 19. Austin showcased excellent hands by fielding all JMU punts, though David Skahn, the Dukes' punter, lofted each kick high so WVU's most explosive player never got a chance.

"He is making good decisions back there," Dunlap said of Austin. "You know, the problem is nobody will kick the ball to him. We are trying to maneuver him around to get him the ball."

Dunlap noted he was especially pleased with the kickoff coverage, which closed quickly on the returners and seemed to attack angles correctly.

"They did what Rutgers used to do, a lot of zone blocking scheme with a lot of guys," Dunlap said. "I think our guys showed a lot of discipline. One squirted out. Corey kicked the ball really well, I thought. Coaching is overrated. It's all about the players. It always has been. You have to get better every week, and I really believe that through about midseason. The improvement has to show up between the first four or five games.

"Obviously, (this season) we have a lot more bodies, there's more athletes out there and more guys can run. Last year, we got a little beat up and we had to plug guys in who weren't used to being there in the preseason. Now, we are hitting on all cylinders (coverage-wise)."

One might consider, though, that entering game three West Virginia has yet to attempt a field goal in a game. That's a positive in that the Mountaineers are rolling up touchdowns at an amazing rate. But it does make one think about the in-game execution that could have been gained and was not. It isn't likely to bite West Virginia, even next week. And as Holgorsen says, the percentages say to go for it inside the 50. But there's a time and place for pushing for more scores and to run clock, and a time and place for perhaps allowing for more live situations for special teams. Neither approach is wrong, but, as Smith notes, he would have liked another chance.

But, indeed, if that's the lone issue to complain about, things are going quite well accross-the-board.


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