West Virginia Won't Look A Gift Horse In Mouth After Topping BYU

LANDOVER, Md. - West Virginia's 3-0. And yet to have a game where anybody felt overwhelmingly positive on all three sides.

And though the Mountaineers and head coach Dana Holgorsen won't look a gift horse in the mouth, we will.

It's hard to truly shred an undefeated nonconference start. After all, the Mountaineers can't be any better than their record right now. But the same issues that have plagued the program again reared the proverbial head against Brigham Young, and nearly cost WVU a win. There was the unnerving lack of coverage at the cornerback slots. There was the lack of a solid pass rush, and the inability to break down the pocket. The defense also allowed an offense which averaged 126 rushing yards entering to run for 280 yards - more than double the normal output. 

Add that to a whopping 521 yards of total offense, a 10-of-15 mark on third downs - including a first and 20 series in which BYU picked up the yardage easily on its next three plays - and a 5-for-5 performance in the red zone, with three touchdowns, are there's reason for concern. And that's not the worst of it. The defense can be granted a bit of leeway, with some mediocre corner play and a known lack of pass rush being issues needing ongoing attention. Tony Gibson's unit did force four turnovers and bailed the team out twice late with picks of quarterback Taysom Hill by Jeremy Tyler and Maurice Fleming, the latter sealing the contest with exactly one minute left.

It also had a third interception returned 54 yards by Rasul Douglas for a 21-10 lead that switched momentum over to West Virginia and seemed the salve to some early BYU success via the I formation out of a twin receiver set.

What really chapped at Mountaineer fans in this one was the nearly complete meltdown on offense after going ahead 35-19 with 11:27 remaining. West Virginia had worked its magic, escaping from within literally three feet of its own end zone via a mix of both finesse and power rushing, solid pass protection, excellent offensive line push and a series of plays between quarterback Skyler Howard and a receiving corps which finished with almost 300 yards itself. The Mountaineers carved up nearly the entire field in among the prettiest displays of a Holgorsen offense ever witnessed. 

The drive covered 12 plays, with a steady dose of explosive back Justin Crawford blended with completions to Ka'Raun White for 19 yards, Kennedy McKoy for seven and four yards on plays in the flat out of the backfield and a blistering 32-yard throw to Shelton Gibson that set-up West Virginia at the BYU nine-yard line. One snap later and Howard rifled a scoring pass to Daikiel Shorts, wide open in the end zone for a 35-19 lead with 11 minutes. There wasn't anything WVU couldn't do, and nothing BYU could.

And then it dissipated in all all-too-familiar scene. BYU scored in just over two minutes when the defense began laying off wideouts. It took the Cougars all of eight plays to go 67 yards after the offense was once again aided by a squib kick after the coverage unit couldn't do just that. Brigham Young averaged nearly nine yards per play on the push, and would have been within a single score if not for a second missed two-point try that left WVU with a more than manageable 35-25 lead with nine minutes left. The Mountaineers proceeded to go three and out, using just 73 seconds and sending a steady dose of momentum over to BYU.

The series wasn't awful in itself, but it shifted the game from one that West Virginia had control over to one where the snowball was heading downhill on the opposite sideline. It should never have felt as such, and that feeling only worsened when the Mountaineers again lacked pass rush and a handful of run fits as BYU got within 35-32 with a drive lasting, you guessed it, just 2:07. A solid all-around team would have been able to secure the game at this point. Give up a drive, maybe two. Have a three and out.

But then West Virginia went three and out again on a dropped pass by White, only to have the defense create a turnover before the Mountaineers fumbled the ball at their own four-yard line when there was inexplicable miscommunication between center Tyler Orlosky and Howard. Orlosky thought BYU jumped and snapped the ball to draw an offsides, while Howard was looking away calling a play. As offensive line coach Ron Crook noted, the players should have better understood the situation and, when driving for a deciding score, to be sure of the penalty. Any doubt, and don't snap.

It wasn't just that. It was the issues with getting Crawford more touches late. The back was imposing his will on BYU, yet got just one touch - and 19-yard run - and one incomplete pass thrown his way over the final nine-plus minutes. Howard, meanwhile, took off on multiple designed quarterback runs that gained six feet. It's puzzling at times how an offense can look so incredibly effective and efficient, then combine with a defense and special teams to implode a 16-point lead and nearly lose a game.

These aren't just pimples of imperfection. There's some serious warts on this team, and they're showing up against the exact type of team the Mountaineers play next week. Scout BYU, and you'll see a physical, hard-nosed squad which plays disciplined football, makes surefire tackles and understands schemes and assignments. That's the same definition which could easily be applied to Bill Snyder's Kansas State program, the one which is now 4-0 all-time against WVU since it joined league play. Snyder has had more talent than the Mountaineers and won big, and has had less and won small. But he has still won. And that's something West Virginia simply doesn't seemed equipped to do consistently enough of now.

That's not to write there weren't positives. Some were covered above, and for stretches both the offense and defense played above average football. That's especially true of the former, whose average starting field position over its first five drives was the 12 yard line. The Mountaineers began at their own 12, 8, 14, 22 and 4 yard lines after a mix of horrible decisions to return the ball instead of taking the touch back, along with holding and illegal block in the back penalties. The special teams also created a short field for BYU after routine 30-plus yard returns.

But when play dipped on offense and defense, it did so in a way that was so incredibly poor that it makes one shake the head in frustration and perturbed amusement. The Mountaineers were good enough to win - this time. But one cannot expect that to play out often in the Big 12 against offenses which execute far better, and defenses like that of Kansas State. It is, in the end, better to look bad and win than look good and lose. But unless the Mountaineers polish some aspects of play, the only thing they'll end up with is a series of ugly defeats.

 


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