The most common layman answers are tackling and a desire to tighten up special teams coverage. And though those two areas will be dealt with, a replay of the Oklahoma game – and subsequent viewing off the Maryland win, shows those really aren’t the most pressing issues. WVU routinely had players in position to make tackles, but, toward the end of the third quarter, simply began to wear down. Stud Sooners tailback Samaje Perine carried 34 times for 242 yards and four touchdowns, earning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors behind a line that would rank second in the NFL in average weight per player at 325.8 pounds; Oakland leads the NFL at 328.2.
That doesn’t automatically translate to being able to play, but position coach Bill Bedenbaugh – a former WVU assistant – has the line functioning at a very high rate, especially in the run game. Oklahoma gashed West Virginia for 301 yards, 180 coming in the second half when the Mountaineers, because of a combination of size, depth and a talent deficiency, began to wilt. It must be noted that the vast majority of teams in power conferences will have the same issues with Oklahoma’s line, and that this isn’t a significant concern against most of the rest of the schedule, nor, in my opinion, is WVU’s strength and conditioning, either up front or at the skill slots.
West Virginia just played what head coach Dana Holgorsen called the two best teams in the nation to a combined differential of three touchdowns. It left a handful of plays on the field, and legitimately had a chance to defeat Alabama. It also had a chance against Oklahoma, with the ball and an opportunity to go ahead in the second half before throwing an interception. But one wonders if the Mountaineers could ever have stopped Perine enough to truly pull out a huge upset. OU head coach Bob Stoops said after the contest that Perine is “a very special player. We felt that all along in the recruiting process. He’s a reliable guy, incredibly smart, and then physically so powerful and strong. He’s got vison, great feet, speed, he has hands. He’ physically gifted and he works so hard at his conditioning and training. After the game he wasn’t all that taxed, which you’d be surprised. He looked great.”
West Virginia won’t face a similar line-back combination this season. So, those qualifiers aside, what are some pressing items to examine? First, West Virginia has lost its coverage lanes on special teams at points this season. It has also missed tackles, and had a handful of players – the same players consistently – get blown up during coverage. Those players might be the best option, they might not – and if they’re not, then it’s simply being stubborn, something that seemed to be lessening in this staff over the last 24 months. Those areas have to be corrected and players must remain on their feet and in lanes during returns.
WVU has gotten into a pattern of allowing scores just before the break that sap any momentum. Wideout Kevin White said Alex Ross’ 100-yard kickoff return mentally affected the Mountaineers during the half, and that the receivers began pressing, trying to do too much to compensate for a tiring defense and their own running game, which was bottled up. Maryland scored twice in the last 5:52 of the first half, the latter touchdown a 26-yard pass from the back-up quarterback with just 40 seconds to play. It happened last year against Oklahoma (FG with 11 seconds left), Maryland (10 points in the final 95 seconds, including a TD with 18 seconds left), Baylor (TD with 64 seconds left, although the Bears were scoring every three-plus minutes anyway) and Kansas (TD with 28 seconds left).
The problem actually started in the inaugural Big 12 game against Baylor when the Mountaineers had a seven point lead and were getting the ball to begin the second half. West Virginia scored with 29 seconds left, then somehow let Lanear Simpson get behind two defensive backs – WVU had safety help over the top – for a 67-yard score from Nick Florence as time expired. Instead of a seven-point lead, the game was tied and the teams were back to matching scores until WVU got a key stop in the third quarter.
“That can’t happen,” Holgorsen said after the game.
But it has continued to happen. That relates to this season’s team not on defense, but primarily in the special teams game. WVU will certainly review film and try to get the lane and physicality issues corrected. The Mountaineers, it should be noted, likely won the overall battle against the Sooners because of exceptional punts and coverage, made field goals of 44, 54 and 31 yards (counting the Josh Lambert make that was disallowed because of a hold) and a trio of close-but-not-quite punt block attempts. Michael Molinari’s kickoffs showed great distance for the most part, Jordan Thompson made solid decisions in the return game and the left side of WVU’s field goal protection seems to have been shored up after poor outings against Maryland and Alabama. The biggest blow, though, was definitely delivered by Oklahoma.
Another issue is coverage communication in the secondary. West Virginia could have been hurt severely by wide open receivers on multiple occasions against Alabama, Maryland and Oklahoma. Alabama and Maryland suffered drops on surefire touchdowns, while Trevor Knight was as inaccurate as he has been this season in twice missing open pass catchers for major gains. WVU isn’t functioning at a high rate, at least at times, in executing assignments on the back end, and that’s a major concern with games against Texas Tech and Baylor looming, and frankly, it’s a concern against most any team remaining on the schedule. Either the recognition or the communication, and maybe both, must be addressed in the bye week.
The other, more mental, issue is that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has said that his unit is trying to do too much, and trying to compensate for teammates that are out of position, or who might not make the play. That has led to an even greater number of players operating outside the scheme, which always hurts more than it helps. That will be a major issue addressed by WVU, and it has to be stopped now. There's obvious trust throughout the team, and it must stay the course throughout games and not revert to that habit of trying to cover too much, and not truly covering anything.
"We preached that all week, and in the locker room leading up to the game" Gibson said of players not attempting to play beyond capabilities. "Just do your job for 60 minutes."
On offense, West Virginia has solved its short-yardage issues for the most part after a slight scheme change early on against Towson, according to center Tyler Orlosky. Any shortcomings on that side of the ball are primarily because of a talent issue, especially against an Oklahoma front that very few, if any teams, will consistently block this season. The timing has been good on most snaps, and Clint Trickett has showed patience other than against OU because he knew that ball release clock was ticking, though maybe not as rapidly as he imagined.
There’s always room for improvement, but there isn’t a truly glaring aspect that sticks out offensively. Drops, some technique along the line, perhaps footwork in certain areas can all be bettered, but until there’s something noticeable against a similar-level opponent, West Virginia will more polish this side than truly try and change anything major.