Take, for example, West Virginia's football special teams. Just mention that phrase, and one of the first reactions will likely be: "Miami. Punt block. 1996." That brings up a welter of bad memories, and before you know it, the perception is rampant that West Virginia's special teams are no good at all. Add in badly executed punt at Louisville this year which resulted in a touchdown return, and it's even worse.
However, a look at the numbers this year shows WVU's special teams have actually been very good. While that glaring mistake at Louisville can't be overlooked or discarded, the Mountaineers have certainly had a leg up on most league teams in special teams play.
In the season finale against Rutgers, for example, West Virginia's third unit played a critical role.
"The special teams kept us in it in the first half," said assistant coach and special teams coordinator Bill Stewart. "I thought they had a great performance in the game, and not just on the scoring plays either. We were getting kickoffs back to the 40- and 50-yard line, and we really flipped field position on a couple of the punts."
Stewart's always-optimistic outlook usually paints a bright picture of any situation, but the veteran coach isn't just blowing smoke here. West Virginia's special teams have ranged from good to outstanding in almost all phases this year, as the following breakdown shows.
WVU's kickoff coverage is the best in the league, yielding just 17.6 yards per return. By mixing several different kinds of kicks, including conventional deep kicks, squibs and high arcing sky kicks, the Mountaineers have kept opposing teams off balance with their return strategies. Placekicker Patrick McAfee has proven adept at integrating these differing styles into his arsenal (which isn't as easy as it seems), and as a result West Virginia has been excellent at pinning opponents deep.
Darius Reynaud and Vaughn Rivers provided the Mountaineers with the top return duo in the league. Reynaud averaged 26.3 yards per return (third best in the conference) while Rivers chipped in with 22.7 yards per runback. Stewart pointed out that in one game West Virginia had a +80 yard advantage on kickoff returns – the equivalent of eight first downs. The Mountaineers finished second in the league overall in this category.
With the mid-season switch in punters, WVU didn't qualify a player for league leadership. However, the Mountaineers finished the regular season with a 37.0 net yards per punt average –- a solid figure by any reckoning. West Virginia was outgained by 4/10 of a yard per punt return on the season -- the only special teams area in which is was outperformed.
Rivers again delivered in this phase, averaging 11.24 yards per return while scoring one touchdown. Anything over ten yards is outstanding, and on average, Rivers gave the WVU offense a first down before it even took the field.
McAfee was perfect on extra points, making all 57 of his attempts. He did not miss a field goal from inside 40 yards, and bombed through a 51-yarder in treacherous conditions at Pitt.
Do these stats add up to make the 2006 Mountaineers the greatest special teams ever? Of course not. However, there were many good performances on those squads in 2006 – ones that should far outweigh the handful of mistakes that were made.
"All we ever hear about is the 1996 punt block," said the ever-positive Stewart. "There are good things going on here with special teams that don't get enough attention."