What makes this failure all the more puzzling is the fact that WVU planned to attack the middle of the field against Maryland.
"Actually one of our points of focus was to attack the middle of the field, because we thought they (Maryland) were kind of weak in the middle," Rasheed Marshall said of the game plan. "We hit one early. It was a sprint out throwback. We saw something on film last year, and we had a similar play. The safety went with the running back down the sideline and left the whole middle of the field open. So we told Miquelle (Henderson, who caught the pass) to just dip inside and run a square in. We had some other things designed to attack the middle of the field, but we never took advantage of them."
Just how many of those "other things" that were left in the playbook is unknown, but the fact is that only four passes were thrown in the middle of the field. The one to Henderson was WVU's longest play of the day. The others included another pass to Henderson that was dropped, a crossing pattern to Travis Garvin that was underthrown, and a seam route to Tory Johnson that was broken up by a Maryland defender.
All four plays had one thing in common - the receivers were open. So, why not run them a few more times? WVU never ran the play to Henderson again, even though it was good for a first down and by far West Virginia's most successful play on an otherwise brutal evening.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Maryland was throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the middle. Crossing patterns, slants, post patterns of all varieties - nothing was left in the bag in the Terp passing game. Mountaineer players admit that crossing routes are difficult to defend in the 3-3 stack defense, and Maryland attacked that weakness without letting up.
Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen admitted before the game that he had lifted several of WVU's plays for the spread offense, and he used them to devastating effect.
West Virginia's reluctance to throw the ball inside is understandable, in some respects. The Mountaineers won last year by riding a huge turnover margin and a punishing ground attack. WVU protected the ball and threw mostly high percentage passes, and that formula was a success. They didn't have to risk throwing the ball in the middle of the field, so they did not.
This year, however, WVU is missing the high powered rushing part of the equation. A young and battered offensive line is still struggling to find their game legs, and as a result West Virginia's offense is sputtering as well.
The Mountaineers are going to have to explore different means of attacking defenses. They need to at least run some slants and hot passes, expecially to slot receivers. They might throw a couple of circle routes to their backs, or slide the tight end across the defense toward a rollout from the quarterback. In whatever fashion, WVU must slow down the parade of blitzes that are forcing the passing attack into shutdown mode, and make opposing defenses cover all of the field, not just the outer thirds.
Understand, however, that this is not a magic potion to cure all of West Virginia's offensive woes. Throwing eight or ten passes between the hashmarks isn't going to send WVU on a winning streak. However, until the Mountaineers truly utilize the spread offense to attack more areas of the field than the flat and the sidelines, defenses are going to enjoy a big advantage.