Coming off a 34-7 pounding in which the Mountaineers put up less of an attack than a fraternity being invaded by the Swedish Bikini Team, it is hard to find anything good to discuss, but there have been a few bright spots no matter how small their meaning to the big picture.
Improving Special Teams: Reading this heading may have caught many of you by surprise, but the special teams do seem to be coming around. This area has been a disaster in recent years and it looks as though things are moving in the right direction. Yes, field goals cost the Mountaineers a win against Cincinnati, but the complete breakdowns look to be a thing of the past. West Virginia did a solid job against Maryland by limiting dangerous return man Steve Suter, punting the ball well, and coming up with some solid returns. A consistent field goal kicker could really help, but at least the other areas have not been a major concern. If Brad Cooper can find a way to kick like he has in practice, the field goals may not be far away either.
Defense: Yes, opponents have been able to score some points, but this Mountaineer defense has played well. Without a solid defense, WVU would have been blown away in both the Wisconsin and Cincinnati contests. The D gave the Mountaineers a chance to win both games even though the offense could not convert. If the offense can find a way to make some plays and give the defensive unit a rest, this defense could be spectacular.
Fans: Another positive has been the attendance both at home and on the road. The students, who have been heavily criticized in recent years, have come out strong in both home games and helped to fill Mountaineer field. A number of gold clad Mountaineer fans made their presence known in both Greenville and College Park as well, and have given their full support to a struggling team.
Attitudes: I have really been impressed with the attitudes on this team. From stars like Grant Wiley and Quincy Wilson down to little known walk-ons such as Pat McClintic and Ed Velickoff, every Mountaineer is upset about a 1-3 start. The good news is that nobody is ready to throw in the towel and heads are still being held high. This team still believes that it can be successful, and that is a quality that should not be overlooked.
When the list of positives includes crowd size and attitudes, the season cannot be going well. Even picking players of the game has been difficult in recent weeks, as no one has really stepped up to make a play to help this team win. The encouraging start against Wisconsin has quickly faded, and the hopes of Blue and Gold supporters have hit rock bottom. Discussing every problem would take up way too much of your time, so I will just hit on some of the most glaring weaknesses.
Injuries: Perhaps the top reason for the pitiful start is a slew of injuries. Last year, WVU was able to avoid the injury bug, and it was a big factor in the 9-4 finish. With very little depth, staying injury free was a must for the young squad, and they were lucky enough to avoid anything major. This year, however, Dave Kerns and staff have been the hardest working trainers around.
The injury bug started before the season started as senior offensive lineman Tim Brown tore his Achilles tendon just three days before the opener with Wisconsin and was lost for the season. Losing the most experienced and talented member of a very green line was devastating, and it would only get worse.
In the opener against the Badgers, Grant Wiley, Jahmile Addae, Quincy Wilson, and Rasheed Marshall all missed time with injuries and may have cost West Virginia the game. The Mountaineers held a 17-7 third quarter lead, but could not pick up key first downs with Wilson on the sideline. Backup Erick Phillips filled in well, but I am confident that the game could have been different with ‘Q' on the field. After fighting through a shoulder injury throughout the spring and fall, Jahmile Addae finally decided that surgery was the only way to go, and after playing in only two games elected to have season ending surgery. The loss really hurt the depth on what had been a very solid secondary and will likely continue to haunt the Mountaineers as the season progresses.
Offense: This may seem to be an awfully broad category to include as a negative, but no part of the WVU offense has performed well in the three losses. The passing attack has been non-existent, and the running game has struggled to find any success behind a youthful offensive front. Third down conversions tell the story particularly well. Rasheed and crew have converted only 10 of 43 third down attempts in the three Mountaineer losses. Rodriguez has shown no confidence in the passing game and has often refused to put it in the air even on third down.
The Record: It may seem obvious to include a 1-3 record in the list of negatives, but I am focusing on this for a different reason. As bad as Rodriguez's troops have played, this team is only a few plays away from being 3-1 instead of 1-3. No matter the record, the team has played poorly, but a 3-1 or even a 2-2 record would be much easier to rebound from than the 1-3 record that the Mountaineers now hold. With tough matchups with Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, and others still ahead, climbing out of a 1-3 hole is a daunting task for the West Virginia squad.
Offensive Line: Coaches and reporters often refer to offensive linemen as "The Big Uglies", but the WVU offensive line has been ugly for a different reason. A lot of blame has been placed on Rasheed Marshall, but even Joe Montana would not look good with so little time to operate. Rasheed barely has time to take a step after taking a snap before an opposing defender is in his face.
The running game has also suffered from the line's lackluster play, as Quincy and the other Mountaineer backs have had to fight for every yard they have earned, and have to avoid defenders to even make it back to the line of scrimmage.
I am not taking a shot at any of the linemen. I fully believe that they have the abilities to eventually come together and make plays. Unfortunately, they simply have very little game experience and are forced to learn with the game on the line. Injuries have further depleted this group and made their jobs even harder. I do, however, have the utmost faith in offensive line coach Rick Trickett, and if anybody can bring this group around, Trickett is the man.
The good news for the Blue and Gold is that there is still time to turn things around, and there is still a great deal left on the table. The Big East schedule lies ahead, and the Mountaineers' goal of a strong finish in the conference is still achievable. Ten days off may help to correct some of the problems and heal up some of the nagging injuries. There is a lot to be done if the 2003 squad hopes to get back on track, but the season is certainly not over.