The Mountaineers displayed another valiant defensive effort, bailing out the offense numerous times and enabling the team to play remotely in the same realm as OSU. The offense? It turned the ball over four times, two by Skyler Howard to give the quarterback a whopping seven in the last eight quarters. Then there are the accuracy issues, Howard mixing overthrows with a lack of touch on some plays, while badly underthrowing others and forcing receivers to come back and break up potential interceptions.
There’s no question Howard can make plays with his feet, and at times he looks solid in firing deep passes to Shelton Gibson or Jovon Durante. But there are now seemingly legit concerns about his long-term viability to operate even a grounded version of Dana Holgorsen's offense.
The calls have come to replace Howard, and that in itself raises another question: With whom? William Crest came in to take a snap after Howard’s helmet fell off, and promptly sailed one right over the head of a wideout in the flat. This is, good or bad, Howard’s job, and the starter clearly wants to win, as a quivering postgame voice showed.
That raises another question, one about how Holgorsen, an offensive guru, has seemingly upgraded the talent at the majority of other positions outside quarterback. Crest is a very highly touted player, but obviously isn’t ready, and has taken more snaps at a variety of other skill positions more than he has out of the shotgun.
It wasn’t that West Virginia didn’t piece together stretches of good play. Most of the second half would attest to that. The issue was, once again, how long it took to get to that point. Most of the first 20 minutes were spent deep in WVU’s own territory, nailed down at the 5-, 7- and 8-yard lines to begin their first three drives. Then there were the numerous – and now expected, it seems – special teams penalties that worsened the situation and led to more bad field position; that’s nothing more than poor team discipline.
Those issues segued into limiting the playbook, but even the plays West Virginia attempted lacked in crispness and quality, especially in the passing game as Howard again struggled with vision and, at times, decision making while throwing a couple balls into double coverage.
On the ground, the going was much smoother, especially within the zone read as Howard made solid decisions and Wendell Smallwood got running downhill and hit holes with authority. Rushel Shell had a slow start, but finally ramped up a bit and showcased his power in the latter stages. The question? Turnovers again. Shell, Howard and Smallwood all fumbled the ball, and Smallwood’s came deep in the Cowboys’ end when WVU was threatening to score.
There were other issues, and as Holgorsen surmised postgame, WVU had a slow start, and right now it seems incapable of playing a full four quarters at a legit Big 12 level.
West Virginia committed six penalties for 53 yards in the first half alone, turned the ball over three times and were shutout on offense for the second and third consecutive quarters dating to the Oklahoma loss. And at the half, the Mountaineers actually had more penalty yards (53) than passing yards (31), and had come to rely on the defense so much that even the 15-point differential felt greater.
On that side, the overall play was significantly better. The Mountaineers at least slowed one of the nation’s top 25 offenses – and the best in fourth down conversion percentage – and allowed the offense so many second half chances it became absurd. The lone aspect that stood out was that WVU’s corners – and both Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut were guilty – didn’t get their head around in time on many deep passes, allowing the Oklahoma State receivers to find and high point the ball. Already at a height disadvantage against both the 6-4 Marcell Ateman and the 6-2 Austin Hays, WVU needed to be able to execute better timing and get the eyes to the ball to make a play.
The issues came back to bite the Mountaineers later. West Virginia had Oklahoma State stopped twice on the Cowboys’ second drive of the third quarter before being hit with a poor pass interference call and then allowing Mason Rudolph to escape out the backside after the pocket broke down on third and long. Rudolph gained 40 yards on the run to set-up OSU’s third and goal flip to from J.W. Walsh to Blake Jarwin for a 23-9 lead. The two plays hurt an otherwise solid series, especially the interference that got Oklahoma State out of its poor field position and awarded them a first down with what was essentially jockeying by both the receiver and Chestnut. But because WVU hadn’t been getting the head around, and Oklahoma State had, the officials seemed to bend toward flagging the Mountaineers secondary far more than the Pokes, even with similar play.
From that point, WVU outplayed the Pokes. The Mountaineers outscored OSU 17-13, and it felt like more. But because it put itself in so deep a hole, there was a slim chance it would emerge, and in the end, it didn’t.
It all amounted to a blurry mess at Mountaineer Field, and even with the rally, the fan base can’t be feeling good about the prospects for the rest of the season. Baylor and TCU aside, Texas is improving. Texas Tech has an explosive offense. Bill Snyder always makes Kansas State better as the season progresses, while there’s a question if WVU does the same under Holgorsen. There are a myriad of puzzles to be solved, and no easy solutions in the midst of a tough stretch.
So buckle up. As much as this game revealed in terms of who the Mountaineers are, and who they aren’t, even more is likely to be exposed over the next few weeks.