Red Zone Success In Spotlight As West Virginia Challenges Texas Tech

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If there's a hot topic - and sore spot - concerning West Virginia's offense right now, it's the red zone.

The subject has caused callouses on the fingertips of writers and a rather perturbed set of responses from some players and coaches. If it seems too great a focus, it's only because of a two-fold reason. First, the Mountaineers have generally been very good in almost every other area. Pass protection, the run game, intermediate and vertical threats have all been good for the offense. Other than multiple turnovers in several games, WVU has performed rather admirably. Then there's the second reason.

The red zone has been a legit issue, the Mountaineers failing at times to not only punch the ball in, but come away with scoring of any kind. Mike Molina and Josh Lambert pulled 30-yard field goals. Rushel Shell fumbled inside the five-yard-line against Kansas State. There was botched communication between center Tyler Orlosky and quarterback Skyler Howard that resulted in a disastrous fumble versus BYU which could have changed the outcome.

It's not quite water under the bridge and not quite spilt milk, either. Floating somewhere in between, West Virginia must prove itself able against a Texas Tech team averaging 55.2 points and 649.8 yards per game - both second in the nation. That the Red Raiders have had opposite results on defense is obvious. TTU has given up 22 scores on 23 tries in the red zone (122nd in the NCAA and last in the Big 12), while allowing foes an average of 38.6 points per game (116th/9th).

"We haven't been able to convert in the red zone, and I think it has to do with our ability to make plays in space," Orlosky said. "When we get down there our space is condensed and we are not able to make those same plays. There's really no reason for that. We have specific formations for the red zone and goal line and we have to get in those formations and execute. We haven't been able to do that and it's been an Achilles' heel for us."

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As Orlosky noted, the scoring becomes even more imperative in this contest, one in which both teams are pegged to score in the 40s, and a lost opportunity close could come back to haunt. West Virginia's offensive line will be tasked with much of the red zone load in terms of generating a new line of scrimmage and allowing the backs to get to the second level. A positive is that WVU has seen multiple looks and fronts, and faced a wide variety of defensive styles. What's not is that, at times, there has been a lack of execution.

"I think we have gotten to a point where we understand configurations, base fronts, base looks, when we cancel this out, our next step is this," offensive coordinator Joe Wickline said. "All the guys do a nice job understanding the defensive concepts in front of them, whether it's odd or even or pressure. I think they do a good job adjusting. Who knows (how long it takes)? Maybe more than one series, but we will get there.

"Being balanced and being two-dimensional is important. It keeps a defense off-balance by being balanced in tempo, in running game, in the passing game. I hate to sound bland on this, but you really have to go back to what we talked about before the Missouri game. We have to be the best football team West Virginia can be. As long as we are the best that we can be, and we continue to get better, we are going to say that has to be good enough. We understand our opponent and we respect the opponent. You kinda feel with that that our guys will be challenged and look forward to it."

Line coach Ron Crook conceded that he'd like to see additional players take reps against Texas Tech, especially if the play count begins to rise as expected. Head coach Dana Holgorsen said he expects per-team possession to be somewhere in the upper teens, with snaps nearing 100.

"I've made no secret since I've been here about wanting to get a lot of guys out there, play a lot of people," Crook said. "The more snaps we play on offense, the more I get concerned with that. We are continuing to evolve with that and work in the right direction. "We had a good off week. The guys went out and got better. The guys worked hard, which is what we asked them to do. We had good practices, and I feel like we improved. We got more guys closer to being ready to play and help us.

"Having beaten good football teams, we will take all that we can get and keep developing that confidence in the belief that we are good. They have that chip on their shoulder still, while believing we are improving."

Note: West Virginia will continue to play Marcell Lazard and Colton McKivitz at right tackle. Holgorsen singled out McKivitz as one of two players - along with linebacker David Long - who has impressed beyond his years. But Crook noted both needed to play better this weekend, as the Mountaineer offensive line graded out rather poorly at times against Kansas State.

"They will both continue to play and hopefully play better," Crook said. "They need to improve every game. I am excited about the way they play together, the way they help each other, the way they complement each other."

There was a positive to emerge from the lackluster play versus the Wildcats in that, for the second week in a row, WVU failed to play a complete, polished game and yet won. It's a sign of team maturity and program development, but one that if continued, will surely lead to defeat this season.

"Kansas State made us earn everything and we consider ourselves really lucky to come out of that game with a win," Crook said. "When you do things like we did, like fumble inside the five-yard line, they usually don't lose games like that. We miss a field goal, we turn it over on downs. From our standpoint, the thing that stands out is that we found a way to win two really tough games, two really difficult games against similar teams that make you earn everything. We won two games that (those teams) don't lose like that. We found a way to win and that's a really good quality to have."

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