Quick Analysis: WVU-Liberty

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia is an example of expectations spoiling reality.

Because it seemed as though the Mountaineer offense wasn’t all that effective in the opening 25 minutes against Liberty. The Mountaineers again had to settle for consecutive field goals after stalling inside the red zone early, and were lacking the punch along the line for short yardage, and the accuracy and ability to secure the ball in the pass game. But that’s some of the magic of the quick-strike, and quick-hitting, ability of the Dana Holgorsen offense.

West Virginia, with little less than five minutes left before the break, had amassed 232 yards with an excellent balance of rush (97) and pass (135). Skyler Howard had completed 11 of 14 passes, and the Mountaineers averaged nearly five yards per rush, and 12.3 per completion. And the scoreboard, even with the slow start and pair of field goals, flatly read that WVU held a 20-0 lead on a pretty solid Liberty team. Projected to the full game, that’s a solid 40-0 win, and not far off the pasting the Mountaineers put on Georgia Southern last week.

And yet there was this…feeling and intuition that West Virginia hadn’t really played all that well in the first half. At least eight points were left, and the Mountaineers’ red zone failures were almost compounded by a Wendell Smallwood fumble that he recovered in the end zone for the 20-0 lead – meaning it could have been 13-0 with Liberty in possession.

But might we all be expecting a bit too much? A second defensive shutout through the opening half, an offense that put up four scores and 280 total yards, that completed 14 of 17 (82.4%) of its passes, and had Howard at a 182.3 passer rating with a 52-yard scoring strike on a catch-and-run, all that stacks up pretty well. Howard had protection and lanes in which to run off designed keepers, he operated the offense efficiently for the most part.

The running game was solid, if not spectacular, after the initial issues, and pushed over the 100-yard mark to 117 on the final drive as the Mountaineers picked up 22 first downs. WVU scored on all three red zone trips, albeit just once with a touchdown. So what really is left? First, continuing to develop the timing needed between Howard and the receivers, along with better push up front in short yardage. As Holgorsen noted after the film review of the opener, West Virginia’s blocking along the line and in special teams was just average; the Mountaineers aren’t generating the movement they should be against teams like Georgia Southern and Liberty.

There were too many “leaks” in the protection on special teams, and too many times when West Virginia – as it did in the initial possession of the second half – couldn’t get to the marker on third and short. Besides being hesitant with multiple non-beneficial steps in short yardage, Rushel Shell also went horizontally more than vertically, and was chastised for the execution on third down in the first series of the second half. It’s a possibility West Virginia wanted to run some of its base plays in short yardage to get some of the issues on film and allow players to see the miscues during the off week leading into Maryland.

Because the very next series, Holgorsen and Howard abandoned the run and threw three straight passes on a quick 53-yard drive capped by Howard’s 10-yard toss to Jovon Durante for the 27-0 lead. Daikiel Shorts had the other two grabs for 14 and 29 yards, and it almost seemed that Holgorsen wanted to prove a point that the Mountaineers, for the most part, could score when they wanted, but were trying other aspects of the offense.

WVU never truly went back to the running game until the fourth quarter when it led 34-10 and had essentially put the game away, when it did manage to convert an unconvincing third and two when Smallwood just eased past the line to gain behind no push. By then, West Virginia had started substituting, with William Crest in at quarterback and a mix along the line that included both Kyle Bosch and Tony Matteo on a third and eight play that was stuffed on a Crest keeper.

The Mountaineers finished with 172 yards on the ground, and 485 total, but the lack of consistency and ability in the short yardage, which has haunted Wes Virginia for major portions of both the Holgorsen and Big 12 eras, is a definite concern. The competition level increases, though just slightly, two weeks from now with the Terps, 48-27 losers to Bowling Green today, then ratchets up at Oklahoma on Oct. 3. That’s three weeks to work the short game, and gain a measure of ability to finish when it’ll truly count during conference play.

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