Not Just a Passing Fancy

The decree was issued, and followed to the letter, in West Virginia's spring camp: The Mountaineers, they were told, must pass to win this fall. But ‘pass to win' reads like the antithesis of every football-ism…

I.e. get off the field on third down, win special teams, ensure second-and-manageable situations. Head coach Rich Rodriguez's declaration wasn't meant as an Oakland Raider-like abandonment of run for pass-pass-pass. It was complement, both to and for his running game, which has launched West Virginia football into the nation's elite. How long it stays there could depend less on superback Steve Slaton and more upon a left arm and 10 pairs of hands.

"We know we are going to have to throw more this season," southpaw quarterback Patrick White said. "Teams are going to stack the box, and I'm going to have to find people."

It was thought a foregone conclusion by the coaching staff; teams were a-gonna pack it in there, force West Virginia to beat them with the pass. Spring seemed the logical period to work such game aspects, considering its heavy lean towards practices in only shoulder pads and helmets. So Rodriguez, quarterbacks coach Bill Stewart and receivers mentor Butch Jones put the signalcallers and the receiving corps through the paces. New packages were added, too quickly at first, then eased in to where players, like Nate Sowers and Jarrett Brown, who had never taken a live game snap, could comprehend them.

It worked nicely, for the units that were focused upon were those who needed a gentle coaching hand, which Stewart and Jones provide, and some sense of urgency and focus following the Sugar Bowl win, which Rodriguez's cattle prod-like style demands.

"Rod has informed us that we have to work, that the Sugar Bowl is over, that last season is behind us," receiver Dorrell Jollah said. "We are now molding together. We know each other some. We know the tendencies. And we know our quarterback."

The latter issue might loom the largest. The wideouts had to prep for two quarterbacks last season, rendering each drill a double-dip of comprehending cadence, reading eyes, gaining a feel for what White and Adam Bednarik did in the pocket and when they felt the time to tuck and run.

"It is easier now because we have had almost a full season with each other and with Patrick," said Jollah, who hooked up with White for the game-winning two-point conversion catch against Louisville. "We know his tendencies, how he thinks, his drops, how you read him, his counts and how he carries himself on the field and when calling plays. What we still need to do is help the younger guys along."

That includes incoming receivers like possession-wideouts John Maddux and Carmen Connolly and deep threat Wes Lyons. Those three will add to a unit that returns Jollah, Jeremy Bruce, Dwayne Thompson, Rayshawn Bolden, Darius Reynaud – who looks terrific in the weight room – and Brandon Myles – who is primed for a big season. Jason Colson's reps in the slot will be lessened so he can help fill the tailback void left when Pernell Williams and Tyler Benoit departed. Ryan Dawson must prove himself after a late knee injury during spring drills.

If the pun can be pardoned, none might add more to WVU's lineup than Lyons. The 6-7, 205-pounder has the length and wingspan to be an instant jump-ball specialist in the end zone. He also could replace current NFL receiver Chris Henry as a legit taller (Myles is 6-3) deep threat.

"I see him as a deep guy," White said. "Just throw it up and let him go get it. Here are not many defensive backs that tall, and that is tough to defend. It sure makes my job easier."

Lyons, who runs roughly a 4.6 40, still must get more drive from his legs, as his overall burst has not equaled itself to the freshman's growth spurts. Add in Barrett's explosiveness with Reynaud's natural talent and Myles' experience and ability, and one has the makings of a solid grouping with some depth.

"All of us have been in Morgantown working with the quarterbacks, Monday through Friday," Jollah said. "We throw with them everyday. We're trying to get used to catching a left-handed ball and a right-handed one, which the veterans had to do last year, but the freshmen did not. There are no off days, and we're trying to stay hungry and work at it."

West Virginia is essentially trying to ease Slaton's load. The sophomore, who ran for 1,128 yards last year, will certainly get his touches, and until teams slow Slaton, White and Owen Schmitt, the trio will handle the load. But Slaton and White have yet to take the pounding of a full season. The Mountaineers know they must have more than just the mere threat of the pass to keep teams honest. The receivers must deliver when needed, which might be often because the coaching line on WVU, attributed to a Big East coach and printed in a preseason football magazine, was that White could not beat you purely with his arm and to force West Virginia to throw to win.

That's logical, but it's also the same coaching style used by Georgia, and Slaton still ran for a Sugar Bowl-record 204 yards. It was also the approach taken by Pitt. Head coach Dave Wannstedt noted that West Virginia's two largest plays of the first half were double screens that were totally shut down. White improvised, scoring once and gaining 30-plus yards on another scramble to set-up Slaton's touchdown for a 24-13 halftime lead en route to a school-record 220 yards on the ground.

Louisville, too, seemed to have West Virginia bottled – and beaten – when it blanketed the wideouts on fourth and eight with nine minutes left. White, who finished with the Big East single-season rushing record for a quarterback with 952 yards, again improvised, slicing up the vacated middle of the field for 15 yards and a first down that jumpstarted the rally.

So, until it's stopped, the adage holds that it's run-to-win and throw-if-need-be.

"We should still be ready to attack teams before we have to," said Myles, who tallied a team-high 34 receptions for 536 yards and three touchdowns. "We got the message that we will have to be ready to do that. It can't all be on the running game."

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