That certainly can’t be the sole measurement of any side of the ball, as factors such as opponent quality, game situation, critical plays and others must be considered. The old adage goes that the numbers don’t lie, but they can mislead. For West Virginia, overall, the numerics seem to reflect the level of play. Consider that WVU is 17th in the nation in kickoff return yardage (25.55 yds), and 80th in net punting (36.54 yds). It’s 116th (out of 125) in kickoff return defense (26.06 yds), but fourth in blocked punts while coming quite close to vaulting into first with a block against Oklahoma.
The most positive issue, in fact, is the level of consistency with which West Virginia has managed to win or stalemate the special teams game in three of four outings. The Mountaineers, maddening at times against Maryland, still blocked a punt in that game and limited burners like Stefon Diggs for much of the contest. WVU had the field position edge against Oklahoma due to multiple punts downed inside the 10-yard line, and it made both of its field goals, one a 54-yarder after a penalty. And, in that regard, the Mountaineers have had solid discipline in most areas, ranking 23rd in the nation in fewest per game with an average of 4.5.
West Virginia’s biggest issue seems to be that when it gets beat, it gets beat in grand fashion, like the punt return for touchdown by Maryland – paired with Jordan Thompson’s muff that was negated by an impressive defensive stand to limit the Terps to three points – and the blocked field goal by Alabama and the 100-yard kickoff return by Oklahoma; that latter one not only tied the score, but also absolutely deflated the team going into the half, especially with the Sooners having possession to begin the third quarter.
“A game is not won or lost on one play,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “With that said, the momentum was lost on that one play heading into halftime. Did we overcome it? We came out in the third quarter, we didn't play great, but there was one point toward the end of the third quarter where our defense came up with a big turnover, and our offense had a chance to score to take the lead. And the offense gave it right back to them. One play doesn't make the different in a game. It did, however, suck the momentum out of everybody at that point in time, which is unfortunate.
“We expect to win special teams every time that we play. Our specialists are playing at a pretty high level. Josh Lambert is playing at a high level. Nick O'Toole pinned three punts inside their 20 – playing at a high level. We came back on punt team and did well. Against Maryland, we had a breakdown against the punt team. I don't know if anyone knows this or not, but our opponents have good players, and they coach special teams as hard as we do. It's all competition. I think our special teams have been playing well, other than the fact that there was a very glaring mistake on kickoff team that we didn't cover. And a mistake on punt team two weeks ago that we didn't cover. That affected the outcome of the game, which was disappointing.”
West Virginia has, in fairness, struck some blows itself. Mario Alford’s 29.6 yard average, buoyed by his 100-yard return for a score against Alabama, ranks ninth in the nation – just ahead of Maryland’s Diggs. Lambert’s seven-of-10 performance on field goals ranks him seventh in the nation in accuracy among kickers who have tried at least that many field goals, and 15th in the nation in made FGs per contest; the sophomore also has the added caveat of nailing the game-winner at UM at time expired.
Assistant Joe DeForest, who oversees the placekickers, punters, snappers and holders, among other aspects, calls Lambert a flat-liner, meaning his reaction to high and lows is somewhat muted regardless. And, indeed, looking at his responses to both a blocked kick against Maryland and the game-winner, there wasn’t a discernable difference. That very Marc Bulger-esque approach should actually help as his game continues to mature. Lambert, hurt for much of last season because of overkicking, has learned to tune in to how he feels physically, and there seems to be excellent pop coming off his foot. His 54-yarder, on the heels of making a 44-yarder before a holding penalty, would have been good from 60 yards.
“I feel better right now than I did at any time last season,” Lambert said. “I learned to listen to my body more and not kick as much.”
There were issues with protection on the right side of the field goal unit, but those seem to have been addressed. Lambert has steadied himself after a pair of misses early. And West Virginia, on the majority of exchanges, is clearly winning in field position when considering all facets of play – i.e. attempting to pin foes deep, hang time, punt location, etc. O’Toole is averaging a respectable 42.2 yards per punt, with eight of his 13 being fair caught or downed inside the 20-yard line, with three punts of longer than 50 yards. Now if the Mountaineers could simply better their consistency in some areas, namely kickoff and punt coverage, and avoid the backbreaking breakdowns.
“Joe (DeForest) does a good job of making the guys run to the end zone to harp on the point of coaching them,” Holgorsen said. “Don't relax - you don't know if it's going to go into the end zone. You have to cover the appropriate way. You have to get off blocks. You have to have your safety guys in the appropriate place. We've coached it hard. We've executed it well. On the one specific play, he brought it out of the end zone. We had guys stuck on blocks. We had guys out of their lanes. We had the safety guys out of position. Did we tell them to do that prior to the play? No. Why did they do it? I don't know.”
Neither, frankly, does DeForest. Sometimes a team is fortunate, and foes don’t expose a breakdown. And sometimes, they do, at the worst of times. And superior talents faced makes for lesser margins of error. The Mountaineers learned that in a pair of painful lessons early this season.
“What do you say? You show you can do it, then sometimes you don’t do it,” DeForest said. “Gotta be consistent. It’s going to get harder and harder each week. Our punt team has been great, except for one play. Our punt return has gotten better. Our kickoff return has gotten better. (Maryland) averaged the 23-yard line. That’s less than a touchback. If you can do that, that’s less than a touchback and you’ve won that phase.
“We have to continue to work it and continue to get better. What people don’t understand is not every kickoff return is going to go for a touchdown. Every kickoff is not going to be tackled inside the 20. They practice, too. You want to gain the advantage of field positon. The biggest thing in football is field position, and that happen in special teams. Did you win the field position battle? Well, you might have won it three out of four, but don’t let that fourth one sour your taste on what we are doing. You aren’t going to win every play, but we try.”