Total Recall

Head coach Rich Rodriguez wouldn't discuss the offensive and defensive play call opportunities he and his staff missed in the West Virginia – South Florida game, but in many respects it looked like a rerun of a game from earlier in his career.

Two years ago, in a 19-13 loss at Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers ran the ball, and Tech stopped it. WVU ran the ball some more, and Tech stopped it some more. Then just for variety, WVU continued to run the ball in the same manner, out of the same sets, with the same base plays. And Tech stopped it again.

Afterward, Rodriguez admitted that he got stuck in a rut with the play calling, and vowed that he would never make the same mistake again. But just a couple short years later, he did. Against the Bulls, WVU ran the outside zone out of the shotgun time and again, even though USF was camped out on the play like Boy Scouts at the National Jamboree. The Bulls' speedy linebackers, aided by an almost ESP-like ability to get defenders to the point of attack before many of the plays unfolded, kept one of West Virginia's pet plays in check.

West Virginia's passing game was also, for the most part, unimaginative. The Mountaineers did throw several wide receiver screens, but as Rodriguez has admitted in the past, those plays are as much long handoffs as they are pass plays. And, in any event, USF's speedy linebackers and backside pursuit made those plays difficult to execute successfully.

WVU's only big plays came on a reverse and on deep passes to Brandon Myles, but for some reason Rodriguez chose not to go to those plays more often. West Virginia had numerous opportunities to put the ball up in the middle of the field in one-on-one situations, as USF's safeties jumped plays in anticipation of the run time and time again. And despite gaining 67 yards on two reverses, the Mountaineers kept the play in their hip pocket for much of the game.

Perhaps even more jarring was the lack of the I formation and any semblance of an inside running effort against the speedy Bulls. In past years, against fast defenses such as that of Miami, West Virginia would go to two backs, either in the I formation or split, and run the isolation and the lead draw, with a fullback leading the way. Often, a two tight end set would accompany that tactic. However, in this game, with Owen Schmitt apparently still limited by the injuries he suffered in the first half and fourth quarter of the Cincinnati contest, the Mountaineers never deigned to try to negate USF's speed by running right at it. Schmitt had but one carry, and was on the field quite infrequently. Thus, either by choice or by circumstance (Rodriguez wouldn't say which), WVU failed to even try a tactic that might have presented the best chance of climbing back in the game.

If the Mountaineers fell into a rut with their playcalling against Tech two years ago, then against South Florida it plunged into an abyss. USF didn't need to know what was coming on first down, because WVU all but announced it. On every first down play it had in the first half other than the last (which came with just 22 seconds to go), the Mountaineers ran the ball. Of those ten first down plays, only one saw the ball in anyone's hands other than Patrick White's or Steve Slaton's. That was Reynaud's 57-yard run on a reverse, which apparently worked too well to call more again in the half.

Things didn't get any better in the second half. WVU had seven first down opportunities where it had a choice to either run or pass, before the time remaining and the score dictated passing as the only option. It chose to run on six of those plays, with only an incomplete screen pass to Reynaud providing any sort of variety. So, of 17 total first downs where a reasonable choice existed to either run or pass, West Virginia ran the ball 16 times.

Understand that I am not among the group that thinks West Virginia should throw the ball more because a) it doesn't throw it enough, or b) it's more entertaining. I firmly believe that if the run is working, keep running it. I also understand that each running play isn't going to gain 40 or 50 yards. And I comprehend that run certain plays a handful of times during the game, either to set up different options off that base action, or to make the defense continue to honor that play. And I am not so stupid as to fail to understand that you keep running your favorite plays because you generally execute them well and that you want to give them a chance to work. So I'm not upset that West Virginia didn't totally junk the outside zone. What I am upset about is that there was next to no adjustments made to the game plan once it became apparent that USF was sitting on the outside zone.

It wouldn't have taken much. Maybe two or three first down passes. Perhaps a deep route off a look that mimics the wide receiver screen. Some inside runs with Max Anderson at fullback leading the way if Owen Schmitt was unable to go, out of a power formation. A couple more reverses. An option pass, unless Slaton's wrist precludes it. Run any of these a handful a times, and West Virginia probably escapes with a narrow win. Instead, it is looking at a minor bowl bid that will likely be met with as much enthusiasm as the 2002 team showed for the Continental Tire Bowl.

Understand that I'm not trying to lay all the blame on the playcalling. West Virginia didn't block well, didn't get off blocks, and didn't attack South Florida's receivers and ballcarriers with much aggressiveness. The pass defense was again soft, and Rodriguez' vaunted "hard edge", at least on defense, has turned into a caricature of its intent. It's no secret that this defense doesn't hit hard – witness the lack of Hammer Awards given out each week. WVU had more hard hits in the last ten minutes of the Maryland game last year than it has all of this year.

We'll save some of that discussion for another day, however. The ugly truth of the South Florida game is that despite USF's very good play, West Virginia could have won the game had it not so bullheadedly stuck to its game plan, even when it became painfully obvious that it simply wasn't going to work on this day.

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