Digging In - And Out Of - The Trench

West Virginia failed by burying itself in a mistake avalanche against Maryland. And now, the test gets even harder.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 9/28 12:00 PM ET

Morgantown, WV

Milan Puskar Stadium
Record: 2-2

Last Game
Maryland 0-37 L
TV: ESPN
Sirius/XM: 85/85
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 3-0

Last Game
Lamar 59-3 W
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2013 Schedule

Series: Tied 2-2

First Meeting: 1928
Last Meeting: 2012
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2013 Schedule

Oklahoma State has arguably the most explosive offense in the Big 12, albeit one that hasn't truly found its niche within the ground game yet. The Cowboys are throwing for 311.7 passing yards per game and average more than 45 points per game, good for 11th in the NCAA. The plug-in-play offense – successful last season while using three quarterbacks – has hummed along under the guidance of quarterback J.W. Walsh, who has completed 59 of 84 passes for 642 yards and five scores. The defense, which allowed just three points in the season opener against Mississippi State, is giving up 13.7 overall, and even though that unit isn't the strongest for OSU, it should have more than enough ability to limit a West Virginia team which has shown zip thus far against solid foes.

Compounding WVU's problems, as if there weren't enough simply trying to fix the basic nuts and bolts of the offense, is that the Cowboys come off an open week. Oklahoma State is fresh, has better offensive talent and has yet to blow up on special teams as have the Mountaineers. Defensively, it reads here that West Virginia has the ability and execution to limit even the Cowboys high-flying offense. But as far as points to watch regarding an upset, this isn't the match-up one desires at this point in a hereto rough season.

So, what are we looking at? On offense— and this is starting to repeat itself far too often – the Mountaineers must work on themselves. Sure, the goal has to be to win the game, and while it would be a significant upset, this isn't a top-tier, national-title caliber foe. But West Virginia's biggest issue right now is West Virginia. The Mountaineers got zero offensive line push or pocket protection versus the Terps. Its running game was shut down by a Maryland team which placed just five defenders in the box. Where's the grit, the power, the raw physicality it takes to play in the trench?

Before one blames the offensive style, saying that the Air Raid, or any variation, doesn't produce solid lines, consider that Oklahoma State out together extremely physical and gifted lines, especially in 2010 and 2011. Once current Washington State head coach and former Texas Tech mentor Mike Leach got it rolling in Lubbock, the Red Raiders had solid lines. Texas A&M's line, under head coach Kevin Sumlin, another understudy of Leach's, held its own against Alabama as the Aggies scored 42 points.

West Virginia's issues are myriad. It has routinely changed line coaches, more than any other positional coach on the roster. The Mountaineers have gone from a spread no huddle to an Air Raid, and from zone blocking to a mix with greater emphasis on man. The biggest problem, though, is that even its brightest prospects, like Josh Jenkins and Quinton Spain, have largely underwhelmed. Pat Eger has been unable to hold down a slot, and though his versatility is an asset, it also means he can't consistently break into the starting line-up at a given area. Some of WVU's best players are also among its youngest, and the line isn't a place younger talent typically has success. And when a team doesn't have an offensive line, all the play calling, the misdirection, the decorations and bells and whistles won't bail it out. If you can't run with five in the box, you can't run. And if you can't run versus five, you can't pass versus six.

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There's no question, the line play is, if not a disaster, then as bad as it has been in quite a while. West Virginia must find a way to get at least a hat on a hat and sustain blocks to give its backs a chance. If it does that, defenses will be forced to concede more players to the run, opening some passing possibilities. The scary thing for fans is that I'm not sure its hand placement or footwork or lack of communication - though it probably is a lack of continuity from sliding players all over, and the group's total effort and toughness has to be questioned. The truth might just be that this group isn't very good, that it lacks ability, that the blue-chippers signed, and there have been a couple, simply aren't. That wait-till-next-year might be the hard and fast reality.

There are, of course, other issues as well. The receivers sometimes get open, then don't catch the ball. Or they don't get separation enough. Sometimes quarterback Ford Childress drills the ball 30 yards downfield between three defenders; sometimes he lofts a floater into the flats that looks destined for a pick six. That can be remedied, likely more easily than finding a line with some juice, some punch.

Take a look against Oklahoma State and see if West Virginia is able to play man up on blockers, or if it's getting beat routinely. If it can't even match-up man-to-man, there's no way the offense will move the ball. Check the short yardage play calls, and see if there's any push off the line of scrimmage. This is, of now, the offense's weak link, and its most pressing aspect. Second, watch Childress and see if he's attacking passing windows, or still floating balls. See if the rangy passer plants his foot and fires, or if he's hesitant in any manner. That's mostly confidence. Watch the receivers and see if they are getting off the line well, negating any jam, and creating at least some separation. Check the backs for pass blocking. Are they adequately picking up rushers, or getting flattened or outnumbered?

This is all basic stuff. But West Virginia hasn't done the basic stuff of yet, much like on special teams. Does West Virginia try and limit errors in the return game by using multiple returners on the punt team? That lessens the area needed to cover and could create a better setting for concentration. It's a sure bet the Mountaineers are trying multiple players at the spots after Mario Alford and Ronald Carswell struggled. Who else gets a chance this week, if anybody? Jordan Thompson? Wendell Smallwood? Further, do the Mountaineers become more intelligent in judging the kickoff return options? Putting a knee down and setting up shop at the 25-yard line is far superior to the vast majority of returns WVU has tried this season. Take the sure thing, because the self-assumed playmakers have yet to make many.

Defensively, one can't complain too much about last week's 37-point outburst. WVU's offense handed Maryland multiple scores with turnovers and awful field position. Now, West Virginia will need to match-up against the best passing attack in the conference. Oklahoma State will throw it all over the field, challenge vertically and horizontally and has enough of a run game threat to keep defenses honest. But these aren't the Brandon Weedon-Justin Blackmon Cowboys, and WVU's defensive fits and overall fundamentals are significantly improved. If there's a chance for an upset, however marginally slim, it will be the defense that carries those hopes.

First, the Mountaineers must limit the run game and tackle well in space. The entire Air Raid, and all spread offenses, are predicated upon getting match-ups in space and making one tackler miss. WVU has swarmed to the ball well this season, and it must continue to do that and win individual tackle matchups. It really isn't so much about yards per completion, though that's certainly significant, as it is yards after the catch. West Virginia limited Maryland wideout Stefon Diggs well last week, and it figures to be able to at last corral the Cowboys – led by Josh Stewart (15.4 ypc) and JhaJuan Seales (11.2 ypc) – enough to keep it interesting.

OSU's run game is more workmanlike than explosive, and the Mountaineers, as long as the alignments and gap control and leverage are executed, should be able to stagnate it enough. Oklahoma State won't win this game on the ground; but, then, it doesn't need to. Control the line enough to force longer downs and distances and get adequate pocket pressure. That, and any decent coverage, at least takes away most of the big play threat and forces longer drives, the old bend-don't-break idea. It's a recipe for hanging in as long as possible – as long as the offense is more secure with the ball and offers at least the semblance of execution. I'm still not sure how legitimately good this Oklahoma State team is; I'm also not sure, if West Virginia can't better itself, how much it matters.


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