West Virginia's offense has come under fire for its performance against the Pirates, and with justifiable reason. The Mountaineers managed just a shade over 250 yards and three points against ECU – numbers that certainly aren't expected from a unit that has run up and down the field against most foes over the past two and one-half seasons. However, the finger-pointing that resulted from WVU's loss borders on the ridiculous.
One often-heard criticism concerned West Virginia's downfield passing – or more accurately, the lack thereof. West Virginia didn't get off a single pass deep down the field, and its longest completion went for just 13 yards. Why, the critics wondered, didn't WVU try to throw the ball downfield more?
The answer is that West Virginia did call several such plays. However, in the face of East Carolina's pass rush, they never had the chance to develop.
"We tried a couple times, and Pat got flushes [out of the pocket]," offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said after the game. "So the perception is that we didn't take shots. The reality is that we took a number of shots. Maybe those were the wrong ones at the wrong time. On one we got sacked and on the others we got flushed and had to throw it away. We took another couple of shots on third downs where maybe we should have been looking at two [two plays to get a first down]. The reality was that maybe we took too many shots downfield."
Of course, from the stands very few people can tell when a downfield pass play is called, which leads to erroneous conclusions. As Mullen pointed out, the truth might lie in the opposite direction.
The first-year offensive coordinator wasn't offering excuses, or trying to justify what WVU did. He didn't try to lay blame. He took all of the questions, some of them loaded, and answered them forthrightly. He explained, for instance, that WVU's early game plan to run the ball had a couple of different dimensions.
"We wanted to set a tempo with the run game and maybe help the defense out a little bit too," he said. "You can throw three passes and get a three and out and hurt the defense. We didn't want to do that. They have a good offense, and that was part of the thought process in our plan."
That the offensive game plan was formed in part with an eye toward helping a still-inexperienced defense get into the game speaks clearly to the questions still surrounding that unit. Rightly or wrongly, the game plan for ECU was to keep the ball away from the Pirates, much as ECU's was to frustrate West Virginia's. In that battle, the Pirates clearly won.
Before this opens a new round of criticism for West Virginia's planning process, it should be noted that no offensive game plan, no matter how intricate, detailed or innovative, is going to succeed when the opposing front four dictates the game. That's exactly what happened in this contest. ECU's defensive line thoroughly dominated the Mountaineers in both the run and passing game. It created pressure and sacks with only four rushers, it contained Patrick White, and only allowed three big plays. That left seven defenders on the back end to play against the passing game, and despite West Virginia's improvement there it's not capable of creating catches against those numbers (few college teams are).
"They were big, they were strong and they were physical," Mullen said of East Carolina's front four. "Those two big guys inside gave us problems."
That might qualify for the understatement of the year, but it's understandable coming from Mullen, who wasn't trying to point fingers at the players. Still, at least some of the blame, if it's necessary to be placed, has to fall there. WVU was unable to do much offensively because ECU's players – not its scheme or its coaches – performed much better.
WVU also had a hand in the carnage, with several self-inflicted wounds.
"The problem is that we stopped ourselves early, and we felt like we were behind the eight ball," Mullen noted. "We made mistakes too early and too often. That really hurt us. Offensively we had a three and out early, and two fumbles. One of the three and outs was a mental error that shouldn't have been made."
It should be reiterated that Mullen wasn't trying to lay blame on his players. He would surely like to have a couple of his play calls back, including the first and second down calls following Noel Devine's 34-yard run in the first quarter that set up West Virginia's only score. However, to lay all of the blame on play calling, lack of preparation or any other facet of the game without knowing all of the facts of the case often leads to erroneous conclusions – just as it did in this case.
I'm sure I'll get called out for the thoughts in this column -- it always happens. 'You're just defending the coaches.' 'You never criticize.' And again, they'll be wrong -- just another example of perception trumping reality.
WVU clearly has a lot of work to do in order to reach its goals this year. Just about every unit has to improve, and work better together. Jock Sanders and Noel Devine need to get the ball more. The defense must tackle better and attack opposing blockers instead of dancing in front of them. The entire team may need an infusion of toughness. But laying the blame on just one thing: coaching, playcalling, preparation or whatever, is an oversimplification, and is dead wrong.