While every team tries to continue to improve (what coach hasn't said “We will keep working to get better” five thousand times during the year), the truth is that by this point in the season most squads are pretty well defined in what they can and can't do. That's not to ignore the handful of players for whom the light comes on later in the year, or who blossom after getting enough experience to figure out how to be effective, but for the most part there aren't great leaps and bounds in productivity.
There is one factor, however, working in WVU's favor – the level of competition faced thus far. That's not offered as an excuse for the losing streak, but it would also be disingenuous to think that it hasn't been a factor either. The trick, or the honesty in analyzing what's gone on so far and how the Mountaineers might best optimize their pluses over the final five games, is to look at what has worked, even in limited fashion, and see how that applies over the last month of the season.
First up is the running game. West Virginia has a back in Wendell Smallwood who maximizes just about every opportunity he gets. Running behind an inconsistent offensive line, he squirms through cracks and crevices, takes on tacklers and produces yardage consistently. There is a wear and tear factor to consider here, but Smallwood needs to get 25 touches per game going forward. Some of those can come in the passing game, where he could hopefully avoid the pounding that happens in the middle of the field, but he's by far WVU's best offensive weapon.
To augment that, the Mountaineer coaching staff might consider some speed in the running game. The jet sweep and outside runs have all but disappeared from the game plan, so would it hurt to get a Jacky Marcellus (or a Shelton Gibson or Jovon Durante) the ball on these a couple of times per contest? Granted, there are challenges here. Developing the timing necessary to execute this more difficult than the average handoff, and Gibson and Durante are outside receivers, while this action is usually run to a slot guy. But WVU has to develop something on the perimeter in the run game to help augment the pounding of Smallwood, and there is at least the raw speed available to work with in this regard.
WVU could also use a resurgence from Rushel Shell, who has seen his output drop in recent weeks.
"He’s playing well. There is no doubt. He’s had more opportunities," head coach Dana Holgorsen said of Smallwood before turning to his backup. "Rushel [Shell] has to get going. We challenged him before, and he has responded. He had a good game against Texas Tech a year ago. He’s used to being the dude. Wendell is playing really well right now, and he needs to be the complement to that. He needs to get there and have the confidence in himself to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him. It’s the same people blocking."
Defensively, West Virginia's strength in the 3-3-5 has always rested in its versatility. Different alignments, different blitzes, changing cover schemes – when it works, it's often due to its differing looks and its ability to create confusion. Unfortunately, much of this ability is also based on experience, and depth, and the Mountaineers have lost a ton of both due to injuries this year. Every defensive coach walks a fine line between getting his players comfortable in a handful of tactics versus overloading them with too much to think about – a common result of trying to install too much in the game plan.
That's a valid concern for WVU, but at this point in the season it's not one that should take precedence. Sticking to the same few fronts or alignments just isn't going to work against the strong offenses in the Big 12. Fortunately, WVU has already played most of those, but it has another coming up this Saturday against Texas Tech, and it can't play two coverages and hope to win. It has to dig deep into its tactics footlocker, and if that means a blown assignment here or there, well, that's probably no worse than what will happen if it sticks to the same few things.
One other note – we're not talking about just blitzing all out here. Drop eight sometimes. Employ the zone blitz (remember Chris Neild picking off a pass a few years ago?) to bring guys from different angles. There are still enough seasoned vets here to make this work, and if it doesn't, at least the defense will go down swinging.
Finally, the Mountaineers must capitalize on its special teams advantage, especially on kickoff returns. For some reason, Gibson didn't even appear on West Virginia's first few kickoff returns against TCU, which is a puzzler given his great performance against Baylor. He, along with Durante, need to be back on kicks, and they need to take a chance on every ball they can get too. WVU hasn't shown the ability to craft long drives or break out enough big plays to score from 75 yards away, so it has to take every chance it can to score, even when the odds might not favor it.
None of these options will guarantee West Virginia success. There aren't any magic elixirs, especially at this point in the season. But if the Mountaineers are going to reverse course, earn a bowl bid and finish the season with some success, they will have to figure out a way in which to maximize these strengths.