There doesn’t seem much middle ground at times. The examples are myriad, the most recent of which came toward the end of the third quarter in the 33-14 win over Kansas when Jordan Thompson dropped his second punt of the season, allowing Kansas to run its second offensive play inside WVU territory. The Jayhawks used the miscue to eventually snap the shutout on Corey Avery’s four-yard rush to get KU within 26-7. Immediately following, the Mountaineers’ Mario Alford returned his second kickoff of the season for a score, going 94 yards through the left side of the coverage unit. Alford, who also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Alabama, again showed his exceptional speed in blowing the game back open at 33-7 with 19 minutes left.
“I’ve been coaching long enough to realize that not all six phases are going to win in a game,” special teams coordinator Joe DeForest said. “But never have I ever had a kickoff return for a touchdown, then they get a punt, and the one at the end was disappointing. It’s something you have to learn from, to keep that same intensity the entire game whether you are winning big or losing big. On point every time you are out there. One play and you are out. And we are judged on that one play.”
It was a microcosm of the hot-cold nature West Virginia seems to play with this season. The Mountaineers get a 47-yard field goal as time expires to beat Maryland – after another Thompson fumble, and a punt return for score by the Terps. WVU hits a 54-yard field goal against Oklahoma, and allows a 100-yard kickoff return by OU’s Alex Ross that was a backbreaker to sap momentum just before the half. Jarrod Harper blocks a punt against Maryland for a safety, and Maryland blocks a Josh Lambert field goal early in the game. The list goes on.
But what’s also true, and should be noted, is that West Virginia typically performs reasonably. Its coverage units have been solid sans approximately one big play per game. Lambert has connected on 11 of 15 tries, including four in the first half against Kansas. The sophomore finished four-of-four on the game, becoming just the sixth player in school history to make that many in a game. Punter Nick O’Toole is averaging 42.9 yards per punt, and hit for a 45.2 yard average on four punts against Kansas. Michael Molinari, who handles kickoffs, is at a solid 61.7 yard average, with foes typically not starting beyond the 25 yard line, the new marker for a touchback.
“I thought we played really well on special teams,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “You had a kicker with four field goals in one half. He had a block, hit it low, and that’s on him. But four field goals in one half is outstanding. Josh is playing good. Nick averaged 45 yards per punt. Our kickoff cover team was excellent. Two mistakes. It’s the same issue that we have had all year with the exception of a glaring mistake. It’s up to me to coach is and address it. I can assure you we are much better than what we could be with just bad special teams play. We aren’t having bad special teams plays. We had a fumble and we gave up a kick. It’s aggravating, I understand that. But it’s not like we have to make a whole bunch of changes to fix it.”
Lambert has had kicks blocked against Alabama, Maryland and, in the last game, by Kansas’ Isaiah Johnson when the score was just 16-0 with a Mountaineer offense unable to punch in from inside the red zone on multiple trips. It didn’t cost WVU the game, this time or against Maryland. But it’s uncanny, really, Lambert’s ability to routinely – and it has become commonplace – hit field goals of 40-plus yards (he has connected on seven of 10 from 40-plus yard tries this season, and two-of-two on 50-plus attempts), and then have the line protection or his own mechanics break down consistently as well.
West Virginia’s kickoff coverage is excellent for a major portion of all games, including, especially, the last three against Maryland, Oklahoma and Kansas. But in each instance, it has had a significant breakdown. A player falls, two more move out of their lanes, there are missed tackles, and, boom, a foe that’s been pinned inside its 20-yard line has a score. West Virginia is easily keeping teams from averaging the 25-yard line if the returns for scores aren’t factored. But that’s a portion of it – they are factored, and they are huge game, situation and momentum turners.
The line protection appeared to be shored up after the issues at Maryland, but that, too, could again bite West Virginia. It’s typically the right side of the protection, and that area will continue to be stressed as opposing teams overload the side. Of course, simple odds state that the more often one attempt a kick, the more possibilities for a block. WVU has attempted 15 placekicks this season, far too few to have two blocks already on the docket.
And Thompson, without question, continues to struggle. The senior averages just 4.5 yards per return, and has had issues with decision making at times against Alabama and Maryland. That area seems to have progressed, but the wideout is still dropping the occasional kick. Alford has returned two punts for a combined minus-11 yards. And he doesn’t catch as consistently as Thompson. No other player does, which is why Thompson - who in fairness handled 13 of the Mountaineer Field-record 14 Kansas punts well - retains the position.
“If we had more people that we liked we’d probably put them in there,” Holgorsen said of punt return. “Catching punts is not the easiest thing you do in football. It’s probably the hardest thing that has to happen. We are recruiting guys, we are working guys. They pay us to make decisions and we feel like Jordan gives us the best option. Extremely disappointed in what I saw.”
So what’s the answer? WVU has tried to not overstate the issue. They’ve let the players simply try and execute at a higher level consistently. They’ve tried to find players that can routinely make plays. And they have. But that word, routinely, well, it doesn’t mean always, and it appears the Mountaineers might be what they are at this point: a team with plenty of home runs, and plenty of strikeouts as well.