Plays and Possessions

After managing to run just 48 plays against Virginia Tech a week ago, WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez was understandably concerned with the low number of chances the Mountaineers had with the football. This week, against Rutgers, West Virginia improved on that number by just six. But was that good news, bad news, or somewhere in between?

Of course, the major difference is the fact that WVU defeated the Scarlet Knights this week. But that's a bit too obvious. Were there different circumstances that contributed to the low number of offensive plays in the two games? And what do those reasons mean for West Virginia's offense, which suddenly has to make the absolute most of every possession?

Both games did feature a couple of things in common. Both Tech and Rutgers managed several long, ball-controlling drives that milked the clock and limited the number of possessions for each team. At first blush, that looks mostly bad for WVU. The other team keeps the ball, wears down the Mountaineer defense, and puts points on the board. However, Rodriguez did note one bright spot in those happenings.

"In those long drives, teams were running it, but we weren't giving up any big plays," he noted. "They had to drive it, and that takes a while. When they get an eight minute drive and we get a six or seven minute drives, that's a quarter."

Although that might sound like a bit of spin, there is some truth there. Many collegiate defenses (West Virginia's included) are predicated on not giving up the big play. Force teams to put together ten and twelve play drives in order to score, and sooner or later the offense is going to make a mistake. Against Rutgers, it worked. While the Knights managed to put together two double digit drives of 14 and 15 plays for touchdowns, they were unable to mount any others anywhere close to that efficiency. Aside from those two marches, Rutgers' longest drive of the day totaled 30 yards.

Truth be told, the strategy worked pretty well against Virginia Tech too. Had the Mountaineers not gift-wrapped 14 points for the visiting Hokies, WVU would have been right in the game against the nation's third-ranked team. That, of course, points up the weakness in that approach. Make a couple of big mistakes in a ball-control, possession-oriented game, and your chances of winning decrease dramatically.

Also contributing to WVU's low number of plays against Rutgers was Thandi Smith's punt block and touchdown. Although it did result in seven points for the Mountaineers, it also amounted to an extra possession for the Scarlet Knights, as WVU's "drive" consisted of zero plays. West Virginia had the ball on offense just five times in the first half, and the last possession consisted of just one play before the clock ran out.

It's not just the long drives that are eating up the clock, though. It's also the style of play. With West Virginia well north of a 70-30 run to pass ratio, the clock obviously keeps running more than teams that throw the ball more. And whne the Mountaineers do throw the ball, the clock doesn't stop many times either, due to WVU's astronomical pass completion percentage of 71.3%. Put thatt all together, and it's easy to see why Mountaineer drives, even those that don't take up a large number of plays, can burn some time from the clock.

Rodriguez also points to the long drive factor as a partial reason for his team's low offensive productivity in the second half.

"The basic conclusion is that we just haven't had the ball very much in the second half," he said. "That's the case in the last two games for sure. We had a couple of nice drives [against Rutgers] that ate some clock and got us field goals."

Against the Scarlet Knights, the Mountaineers had the ball for just five meaningful second half possessions (WVU again ended the game with a one play kneel down) but this time managed to turn the tables a bit on time of possession. West Virginia kept the ball for 8:04 of the fourth quarter – the first time in six periods that they have had the ball longer than their opponents.

In the end analysis, of course, time of possession, and even number of plays, aren't as important as what the offense does with it while it has it. However, these stats, especially the latter, can give a good indication of which team controlled the pace and flow of the game, and that can be very important when teams with differing styles meet – such as this Saturday, when Louisville comes to town. The Cardinals live for the big play and the quick scoring strike, while WVU has been more of a pound-it-out squad. With Louisville's explosiveness a big concern for the Mountaineer defense, it probably wouldn't make WVU's coaching staff unhappy to see each team limited to 55 or 60 plays each. However, as Rodriguez notes, games with fewer offensive possessions also have their pros and cons.

"It makes the games faster, and that's o.k., but when that happens every possession becomes more important," he said. "In those games, on each drive there's more pressure to score."

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