West Virginia's Offensive Success Tied To Play Of Line

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It appears the old adage will hold true: West Virginia's offense goes as its line play does.

With respect to the big-play capabilities of the Skyler Howard-to-Shelton Gibson show, and the steady running of Rushel Shell, this win was made possible by the offensive front. With West Virginia stagnant and unable to move a solid but overmatched Youngstown State line, the underdogs stayed in the game in an exasperating first half. That changed with the first series of the third quarter, when West Virginia finally served an overdue notice that its line would, after all, indeed come to play.

The Mountaineers, fresh off a relighting of the internal fires during the half, rode the ground game to a nine-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that broke a 14-14 tie and gave WVU what would be the lead for good at 21-14. It was as imperative as any drive this season, and got West Virginia off the schnide that was subpar line play. After a lethargic and listless first half, Ron Crook's unit showed significantly better effort over the latter 30 minutes and managed to secure a rather blase' 38-21 victory. 

West Virginia would end with 624 yards of total offense, including 389 on the arm of Howard and hands of Gibson. The quarterback completed 20-of-33 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions.It was a steady performance that would have nudged the needle into the very good category if not for a handful of passes that sailed high, or could have been picked off. Gibson was nearly untouchable all game by a secondary that lacked the speed to match the Mountaineers. Gibson had six catches for a career-high 171 yards and two scores, eclipsing the 148-yard mark he set against Iowa State last season. Gibson was targeted seven times, catching six, many of the over-the-shoulder variety as arguably the nation's best long ball tracker averaged a jaw-dropping 28.5 yards per catch.

Daikiel Shorts and Ka'Raun White added 93 and 88 yards, respectively, and gave some balance to a passing attack that averaged 19.5 yards per catch. WVU also had four different runners net at least 34 yards, led by Shell's 84 yards on 16 attempts. Crawford ran for 40 and McKoy 34 in getting his first collegiate touches, and Howard added 50 in another gutty showcase. It all amounted to a solid, if not overly sound, victory.

But it wasn't pretty, not with the big uglies badly underperforming in the first two quarters. The struggles were evident. The line failed to get the push it had in the season-opening win over Missouri. and conversely the Mountaineers were behind the sticks throughout the first and second quarters. Marcell Lazard's task was particularly difficult, facing off against FCS first-team All-American defensive end Derek Rivers, YSU's all-time sacks leader. Lazard was shoved off the line of scrimmage consistently, while Rivers also showed solid swim, rip and spin moves to attack the pocket. WVU never gave up any sacks, but there were quarterback hurries and knockdowns, and that in turn affected the timing in the passing game.

"It was a soft box and we need to be able to do a better job than that," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Give them credit for being able to hold their own. We challenged the offensive line at halftime. We talked about that all week, our depth and being able to play some guys, I hoped we would wear them out in the second half and we did."

Key word being second half. The line's lack of ability to control scrimmage spilled over into every other aspect of offensive performance. Without quality pocket protection, the Mountaineers threw the ball just once on their first 14 first downs, and that pass was intercepted by Youngstown State's Eric Thompson to end the first series. The next 11 first downs were all run plays, with the gains totaling just 32 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per play. That left WVU with, on average, a second and seven, among the reasons West Virginia faced eight third downs, converting five. The offense never seemed to find the rhythm, and were left with only a couple long touchdown passes to show for 42 offensive plays.

It did appear the Mountaineers were going to get the ground game rolling early, with Shell using a series of solid holes to pick up chunks over the first two possessions. But the back lacks the breakaway speed to manage longer runs, and his longest was a 21-yarder. Subtract that, and the average looks a much more pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry. Justin Crawford didn't get as many touches initially, and had amassed just 22 yards on eight carries, a 2.8-yard average at the break behind a line that wasn't providing the push or rushing lanes expected.

Combine the lackadaisical offensive execution with a defense that was a bit bend-not-break and YSU was able to control possession for 16:38 while completing seven of 13 passes for 149 yards. The numbers certainly weren't dominant, but they were enough to do exactly what head coach Bo Pelini wanted as the Penguins kept WVU's offense off the field and thus in check, and managed to ease the burden on its defense. That, aided by the lack of performance by the front five, ultimately made the game closer than it was.


Youngstown State was also shockingly able to control WVU's defensive line as well. West Virginia ran multiple different sets out, including one with Adam Shuler at end and Christian Brown at nose in place of Darrien Howard.

That served a two-fold purpose. First, it limited Howard's snaps, the senior coming off a game in which he played 70-plus plays against Missouri. It also put a touch more burst on the field to close down some of the open running lanes exploited by Youngstown State. Howard started his career at linebacker, but has bulked up to 297 pounds on his 6-1 frame, and he also lacks the wingspan of the 6-2 Brown. It was a solid move by position coach Bruce Tall, and it allowed for added development of depth and young talent.

The same shuffle was on display at linebacker, where David Long and Xavier Preston both played significant snaps. That will continue as the season progresses, as Long simply has too much talent to keep him off the field and Preston continues to work back from his one-game suspension. Gibson's unit played effectively for the most part, save Jarrod Harper's bust when Ricky Davis found Alvin Bailey for a 74-yard score that served to create tension as YSU took a 14-7 lead. That segued into the final methodical 10 minutes as West Virginia continued to be hampered by the lack of line push. Howard did find Shelton Gibson over the top of the Penguin secondary for a game-tying 54-yard scoring pass.

That gave WVU some badly needed momentum, and the Mountaineers were poised to take a 17-14 lead into the half after a stop and the resulting seven-play, 52-yard drive before Molina badly missed a 30-yard field goal. That kept the game tied and very much in doubt until West Virginia's offensive line began to take control.

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