WVU’s running game seemed the scrutiny of the fourth estate – including this one – and some portions of the fan base as well. It was, however, only a segment of the run, and only within parts of the first two games. It’s fairly easy to target the need, when there are so many positives that do, indeed, get covered as well. Skyler Howard showed excellent command and control of the offense, and himself, and played within the scheme while completing 21 of 26 passes for 263 yards and three scores. He again threw no interceptions while firing rifle shots to Daikiel Shorts and showcasing better touch than in the opener.
Wendell Smallwood looked explosive, if not quite electric, in hitting holes quickly and getting vertical. The line’s pass protection was solid, and it run blocked well enough for West Virginia to net 172 yards at approximately four yards s clip. As a whole, the team protected the ball and finished drives – the Mountaineers scored on four of five possessions in the first half and three of six, all touchdowns, in the second.
The problem stems from the early stages in both games, when overmatched foes were able to thwart drives within the red zone to force field goals. It was, indeed, an issue in the first game. But a review of the win over Liberty shows that wasn’t the lone issue plaguing the Mountaineers when the field got tight. Running backs coach JaJuan Seider noted that the Flames were bringing safeties down and forcing the run game to the outside.
“We tried to get the ball to the perimeter a lot more today because they were squeezing the box with those safeties, which was the same thing with Georgia Southern,” Seider said. “Eventually, somebody is going to say this isn’t working, and we better get over the top to try and protect and stop these wide receivers. That’s gonna allow us to hit some more big plays in the run game. It’s frustrating. I feel like those guys are pretty good darn backs and we are pretty good up front and you feel like ‘Why can’t we get the long runs?’ But that’s our job, to make sure they aren’t pressing and trying to force those long runs.”
That works, if teams can’t adequately throw. But West Virginia torched Liberty for the set-up, completing 27 of 32 passes all game for 313 yards, three scores and numerous big gains. The Mountaineers simply did what Dana Holgorsen’s offense calls for in recognizing and exploiting the numerical advantage.
The problem in the red zone came every bit as much because of a lack of execution in the passing game as it did the rush. Howard threw all three of his incompletions in the zone, one of which was a dropped touchdown by Shelton Gibson.
Another was off a slant pattern that was open to the boundary side. But the field side slant was even more open, and likely would have gone for another score. Again, that’s the Xs and Os working, just a matter of tuning the execution portion. Continuing to pound the ball into a loaded box would have been the definition of doing the same thing again and expecting different results. Sure, the line could have gotten a bit better push, but there were plays to be made in the red zone that would have boosted the Mountaineers from finishing with four TDs in six trips to at least five and perhaps a perfect 6-of-6.
In fact, Seider said he thought – while understanding there are aspects to be worked – that West Virginia’s backs made the correct reads for most of the game, although certainly some additional miscues would be likely to emerge during film review.
““I thought I saw one today when we missed,” Seider said. “I thought Rushel (Shell) should have jammed it up in there and he saw a guy flash. To me, I take that channel and I want you to go attack that guy and go that way instead of trying to cut it back into the line of scrimmage. Once we watch the film, of course there will be more.
“We all want to see those guys have a lot of runs. Again, a guy like Shell, he’s only going to get stronger the more balls he gets, get him going downhill more and feed him, feed him, feed him. But the last two games, guys have been geared to stop the run. There ain’t been a lot of room; they take away the front side read, and we cut it back and there’s a safety there. We just have to continue to coach the guys.”
It’s difficult to argue with 40-plus points and 485 total yards, 172 on the ground when a team’s trying to take the run. The Mountaineers have outscored the first two foes, admittedly not top shelf competition, 85-17, and showed offensive progression in both the run and pass from game one to game two. Now, the goal is to continue through the open week and into Maryland preparation.
“There’s going to be a whole bunch of things that we are going to go back and look at on the film and say that we need to do a better job,” Holgorsen said. “It’s week two. We are a work in progress. But I thought our guys played pretty good. Offensively, I think we made strides.”