A confluence of events combined to yield those 108 times WVU snapped the ball on offense against Maryland, and while some of them could occur again, it's unlikely they will all converge in one game again anytime soon. WVU's offensive efficiency certainly could be a continuing theme this year, allowing the Mountaineers to prolong drives and get more snaps, but how many times will its foes have 13 possessions of four plays or fewer? Incredibly, that's just what the Terps recorded. Whether it was WVU stopping them quickly or Maryland scoring just as fast, the Terrapins ran just 37 total plays on 13 of their 16 possessions. Were it not for a trio of drives that totaled 31 plays, WVU might have pushed the 120 snap count.
Maryland scored 21 points on a total of just two plays from scrimmage (the third coming on a punt return for a score), and WVU had 10 possessions of seven or more plays, leading to the lopsided total. While that ended up working out in the Mountaineers' favor, it also led to at least a bit of concern for some offensive personnel.
“I wondered why it was taking so long for them to get lined up in the fourth quarter,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said, only partially joking, after learning his offense went over the ball 108 times. “But we challenged them, and they responded.”
That they did, but there has to be a least a bit of concern for those players who participated in all, or nearly all, of those plays. That included the entire offensive line, as well as wide receivers Mario Alford and Kevin White. How did playing all those downs affect them in the fourth quarter?
It's not fair to immediately make the inference that West Virginia's fourth quarter performance was directly tied to fatigue. However, after, suffering just one three-and-out in the first three quarters, the Mountaineers had two in a row in the final frame before rallying on its last two possessions. Dawson clearly noticed that his team was struggling to get lined up as quickly as it had earlier in the game, but didn't admit to any changes in tactics to give some of those players a break. Instead, he noted that the coaches challenged those players, along with the rest of the offense, to make game-defining plays as the contest wound down.
That all sounds good, and gives everyone a warm feeling about the toughness and resiliency of this year's West Virginia team. There's certainly truth there. But it also has to spark at least a couple of questions. Can players play every snap in a game with a pace like this one? And is there an alternative?
Again Dawson wouldn't admit to changing play calls or altering the pace to provide potential relief, but he did discuss the issue of substituting. The decision to be made there is a simple, yet tough one. If there is a marked talent gap between starters and backups, do you ride the better players no matter what, or sub in at times to perhaps prevent fourth quarter fatigue?
For positions like the “A” back, it's not an issue. Rushel Shell is clearly the starter at this point, but his backups are good enough to win with, and all will have roles at times this year. When Shell injured his shoulder against the Terps, there was no hesitation to use Dreamius Smith or Andrew Buie. The coaches even put a huge third down conversion in the hands of Dustin Garrison, who came through with a nifty move to pick up a critical conversion. Rest can be given for a series or a few snaps, and offensive output shouldn't suffer.
The gap is bigger, though, between the first team offensive linemen and their backups, and between the White/Alford combo and their subs. At those positions, Dawson notes, he simply doesn't want to take the starters off the field, because their presence provides a significant advantage for WVU.
Of course, there's always an opposing view, and in this case it's also a simple one to articulate. Sub in for those starters on occasion, and they'll be better rested for potential fourth quarter showdowns. But what if the backups fail to produce in those situations when then are in the game? Then there's debate over not playing the best players all the time – which is exactly the strategy WVU employed in the Maryland game.
Like many debates of this sort, there's probably not a right answer. Viewed in hindsight, the judgment is going to come with wins and losses. If WVU wins, the fatigue factor, if it exists, is merely a sidelight. Lose a few games, and it will become an issue that gets more examination.