In last week's loss at Colorado, perhaps the most alarming of West Virginia's struggles was an inability to convert short-yardage plays, particularly on third down. In all, the Mountaineers had five chances to convert a third down of less than two yards. They converted zero. They also failed to convert a fourth-and-one in the third quarter which would have sustained a drive in Colorado territory.
So, how does a team that runs for 311 yards and a pair of touchdowns not convert a single third and short in the same game? In the wake of WVU's second loss, that is the million-dollar question around the Puskar Center.
If West Virginia is to get back on the winning track beginning Saturday against Marshall, a big part of doing so will be sustaining drives. A big part of sustaining drives is converting third and short. And a big part of converting third and short, of course, comes up front, where WVU's experience-laden offensive line – plagued by inconsistencies in the season's first three games – is working to improve as preparations for Saturday's game against Marshall continue.
"As an offensive line, we take responsibility for that," said senior tackle Ryan Stanchek. "The one quarterback sneak (on fourth down) was our fault. The third-down-and two was our fault as well. The 311 yards is kind of a benchmark, but this time we fell short."
While it may seem easier from afar to convert short-yardage situations, there are circumstances on both sides of the ball which make those downs a little bit different from, say, third down and medium or long.
"The mindset of the defense is a lot different," explained offensive line coach Dave Johnson. "You're going to have a lot more defenders closer to the ball in those situations because we're going to be in different formations. You're going to bring some extra hats to the party. So, that makes it a little more challenging. We just need to get our hats where they need to be so we can get a little bit better movement and sustain drives. That's what we're trying to focus on."
Overall, there have been many good moments for West Virginia's offensive line through the first three games. However, there have also been moments where the unit looks more like a group of newcomers instead of the collection of seasoned veterans. It is this overall inconsistency which Johnson and his players are working to erase over the next few days.
The problems up front, Johnson says, are correctable. There haven't been many big mistakes or major gaffes, but the accumulation of smaller errors – sloppy footwork, hand placement, communication – has resulted in the aforementioned inconsistency.
"I think we're giving good effort. I think guys are working hard and taking a lot of pride in what they're doing," Johnson said. "We just need to continue to be a little more exact in what we're doing. Just keep working hard, keep pressing, doing things right and make good decisions.
"Missed assignments haven't been a big deal," he continued. "We just have to be more exact."
A pair of freshmen – redshirt Donny Barclay and true frosh Josh Jenkins – saw increased reps in the loss at Colorado. Though both players are young, their contributions off the bench have been noticeable. Both players, according to Johnson, have earned the reps they have received to this point and more.
"They have really been bright spots in our play," he admitted. "They both have earned the chance to play and they need that experience. Those are two of the reasons that they've been getting the playing time that they are getting. It will pay off in the long run, but right now it is paying off in the short run, too. They are doing some good stuff, and I am really proud of them.
"Like any first-year players, they are going to be green on some things and more experience will cure some of those things," Johnson explained. "Hopefully, with more and more reps, they will get better and better. I'm excited. I'm really optimistic on their progress right now."
Will the added reps to the workload of WVU's freshman duo, combined with the increased attention to detail in practice be enough to prevent an unwelcomed encore of last week's short-yardage woes? And aside from the short-yardage issues, will the play of West Virginia's offensive line finally equal preseason expectations, when many were bestowing the line with the title of nation's best? The answer to those will not be known until Saturday.
In the meantime, Johnson and his dedicated charges will continue to work towards improvement, not just in the short yardage, but overall.
"They're competitors," he said. "I think anytime you fall short of winning and you're a competitor, you'll be frustrated. So, I've got a bunch of competitive guys who have won a whole lot of games and been in a lot of battles. They want to do well, they want to succeed.
"You don't necessarily point at one particular play or even a couple of particular plays. It is a game full of plays that end up being the culmination of the result of the game," summed up the former Mountaineer center. "You hate to look at one particular thing. Is short yardage something we need to work on? Definitely. There are a lot of things we need to work on. We will continue to take each phase of the game, each field zone, each circumstance and continue to work hard at it."