The No. 4 Mountaineers ran just 54 plays last week to Mississippi State's 72 in a 42-14 win that was just a 28-14 lead with three minutes left. WVU had the ball nearly 10 fewer minutes in the first quarter alone, and finished with a 33:25 to 26:15 time of possession deficit (7:10). Worse, it allowed the 1-5 Bulldogs, who failed to score in their first two games, to convert six of 13 third downs. Two were by penalty, and that aspect is seemingly being addressed. But the other four were a mix, according to secondary coach Tony Gibson, of not making plays on the ball and, much to MSU's credit, creative play-calling, like a shovel pass and using a power set versus West Virginia once and running it twice when WVU's defense was in its SWAT package.
East Carolina's recipe for a close game was similar. The Pirates, then losers of three of their first four, were held to a paltry 1.4 yards per pop on the ground, but completed 22 of 47 passes for 276 yards and a score in WVU's 27-10 win. ECU was in the game in the fourth quarter largely via an edge in total plays and another near-seven-minute advantage in time of possession. A large portion of that comes from West Virginia's defensive philosophy, the Cliff Notes version of which is this: Eliminate the long-gainers, keep opposing wideouts in front of the defensive backfield and force squads to complete five or six passes -- at least two or three of which will often come on third down because, simply, teams cannot run on WVU -- in order to score.
Because the odd stack stiffens inside the red zone, when defenses cannot stretch it vertically, the number of wideout patterns are more limited. It also means it is easier to cover shorter throws, like tosses to tight ends and crossing patters (which have hurt the 3-3-5 in the past) by allowing linebackers and cornerbacks to run to the ball upon the pass being thrown. Since they are not coming up in support from more than 20 yards deep, the catch-and-run time is more limited, and gains are shorter. That translates to a drive stoppage and, typically, a field goal.
All this is great for limiting scoring and the big play which can turn games around quickly. It's a superb setup in terms of stuffing the run and not getting gashed by a tailback. And it indeed makes teams earn points. But it also, though head coach Rich Rodriguez said this week that he "hates the term," bends quite a bit, often without breaking. A dozen points per game is not a concern. What might be, however, is the opposing play numbers and time of possession, which, combined with the new NCAA clock rules that state the game clock starts when the play clock does upon change of possession, are taking snaps away from West Virginia's offense.
The Mountaineers are scoring points at a 41.6 per game rate. No worries there. But, in the last two tilts, much of the point production has come late, meaning the starters are in longer -- something that would likely happen anyway with Rodriguez's 'secure the game like Fort Knox before subbing' ideal -- and the contest is in jeopardy into the fourth quarter against lesser foes. ECU had numerous chances, including the recovery of a muffed punt, to move ahead. Mississippi State, a very poor SEC team bordering on plain bad, drove at will against WVU twice in the second half, despite facing nine third and long conversions of the 13 total, and once failed to score only because of a butterfingers job by a wideout.
The Bulldogs twice beat WVU's secondary deep in their last drive before the half. The first touchdown was called back by holding. The second made it 14-7 and swung momentum to MSU just before the break. To its credit, West Virginia steamrolled State on the opening series of the second half, mixing tailback Steve Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt into the Mountaineers' bread-and-butter read zone plays to cover 80 yards in eight plays for a 21-7 lead. But WVU was up by just two scores largely because it had taken just 24 offensive snaps in the first half, not a big deal when it's dealing with Eastern Washingtons and even Mississsippi States, but a huge concern against the point-a-minute production of a Louisville.
In all, foes have run just nine more plays than West Virginia (329-320). Some of that is because WVU scores on special teams and via Slaton's 50-plus yard bursts. But some of it is because, simply, the defense has not gotten off the field as effectively as it can on third down, and because of its makeup.
"That's one thing that really frustrated me," Rodriguez said after the MSU game. "We had a chance to make a team that was already doubting itself really doubt itself and we didn't do it. We have to get off the field on third down."
"There are times," Rodriguez added during his Monday night comments this week, "that I think the defense is playing harder and more aggressively in practice than it is in the game."
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said he disagreed, noting that part of that is simply already knowing what the WVU offense will do in practice and not worry as much about mistakes. Casteel said, rather, that his lone major concern was penalties. Eliminating those, he said, and making a few more plays on the ball will remedy all problems. The other obvious remedy is continuing to force negative plays, as WVU did when it had six sacks against MSU after recording none in the first four games, although it did get decent pressure.
"The first thing is eliminating penalties. That's the obvious one everyone can see," said Reed Williams, who is the lone linebacker on third down in WVU's SWAT package. "We gave Mississippi State seven first downs by penalty, two on third down. Then it's just getting your coverages right, making sure you know what you are doing and having everybody covered. If we can get coverage sacks, have everybody accounted for back there and let our guys get to the quarterback and get coverage sacks, that would be great.
Enough negative yardage plays should make it impossible for teams to convert third downs. But, though Rodriguez says West Virginia can show, and has shown, multiple fronts and packages on third downs -- like three- and four-man sets and a newly-utilized cornerback blitz unseen before it dropped State quarterback Omarr Conner twice -- it is likely never going to be a sack-oriented team, like a Florida State, both because of the defensive set and because of the athletes it recruits, which are more tweener types for the hybrid safety positions and lankier defensive ends. It's not that WVU doesn't want the NFL bull-rushing stud, but those are difficult to find, much less recruit, though that could come easier if the Mountaineers continue to win.
That might not matter in a grand-scheme outlook. Syracuse led the nation in sacks until last week, and is now second with 26, and it's still allowing more points than West Virginia. What does matter, however, is getting enough of everything: pressure, coverage, no missed assignments and basic execution, to limit drives to a reasonable five or six plays and get the spread offense back on the field. The argument isn't that West Virginia's 3-3-5 need dominate. But it does need to get the offense on the field more, because if foes face Slaton and quarterback Patrick White enough, and they're not turning it over, then the limit for points is very high. There is simply too much talent being used correctly in a very simple, yet very well-excuted, scheme.
But enough isn't 24 plays per half, or barely more than 50 per game. There should be improvement this week, especially against an average offensive team like Syracuse. If there isn't, and the Orange convert third downs behind quarterback Perry Patterson, or prove able to move the ball in chunks of short yardage, then it's time to worry a bit more going into Connecticut, the last game before the much-anticipated Nov. 2 tilt at top-ten Louisville.
The advice here: look more at how Syracuse advances the offense rather than how much it scores. That will give one more insight as to WVU's problems and how Louisville might move the ball, which could be the most effective defense the Cardinals have.