West Virginia has struggled to find an offensive identity this year, for a variety of reasons. From coaching and personnel changes to improved defensive tactics, a number of factors have combined to keep West Virginia's scores lower than they were over the past couple of years. Many of those have been well documented, so they probably don't bear repeating here. However, there is one thing to keep in mind as the 2008 Mountaineers continue to work to hone their offensive attack – it's not fair to compare this team to those of seasons past.
Yes, West Virginia returned a number of players from its 2007. But it lost just as many key performers. And there are just too many variables that can change from year to year – injuries, team chemistry and luck among them – that make it a risky exercise to project a year's results based on the previous year.
Need an example? Look at 1987 and 1988. In '87, WVU goes 6-6, loses some close games and doesn't seem to get a break all year. In '88, the reverse happens. WVU gets key plays at critical moments and suffers no key injuries -- at least until the final game and in the Fiesta Bowl, which killed any chance at winning the national title. Now, you can say that the experience gained in 1987 contributed mightily to the 88 roll, and you wouldn't be wrong. But there was something different about the way the 1988 team meshed. And it's unexpected factors such as that which make year-to-year comparisons very difficult.
So, with that ground rule established, what factors are causing West Virginia's offensive inconsistencies this year? And what can be done to correct them?
First, West Virginia still hasn't established an offensive identity. It wanted to be able to throw the ball when teams crowded the box. Then it went back to its bread and butter zone reads – almost exclusively. Faced with a third down and short conversion problem, it unveiled a very smart solution, but then ran it into the ground. It seems as if each week, a different aspect of the offense is highlighted, but sometimes is featured to the exclusion of other things that WVU can do well.
The best, and latest, example of this came against Rutgers. Using Jarrett Brown as a bullish running back from the shotgun in third and short situations (which we're calling as two yards or fewer to go for a first down), WVU rolled up several first downs in the first half, all apparently on the same play call. In finding a role for Brown and utilizing his talents to fix a hole in the West Virginia offense, the coaches should rightly be commended. However, as the game wore on, Rutgers made adjustments, and began selling out to stop Brown on the QB keeper. Brown made a couple on his own, skipping out of a tackle attempt on one play and bulling through defenders for another. It seemed clear at that point that Rutgers was ripe for a different play call in short yardage. Maybe a repeat of the Patrick White to Tyler Urban play, or a rollout that put Brown on the corner with a run/pass option? In any event, the same play calls came, and Brown was stopped twice, including the critical fourth-and-one attempt in the late stages of the game.
Second-guessing play calling is, of course, an easy thing to do. As noted many times, any play call that doesn't work is criticized. However, that's not the intent here. Had WVU thrown a pass on that fourth and one, and had it fallen incomplete, it would have been difficult to offer criticism. The same would go for a quarterback sneak in that situation, with Brown under center. (More on that in a moment.) There was simply the feeling that Rutgers knew what was coming, and was primed to stop it. Any changeup in the play call might have caught the Scarlet Knights by surprise. And even if it hadn't, it would have at least signaled that West Virginia was making its own in-game adjustments.
When asked why Brown took that fourth down snap from the shotgun, and not under center, head coach Bill Stewart noted that Colorado White in a similar situation. However, with Brown under center, the situation isn't really the same. You have a 185-pound runner versus a 230-pound runner, which alters the equation. If Stewart felt the distance against Rutgers was too long for a QB sneak, then that's understandable, but the fact that he had a power runner available is a defining difference.
It seemed, just as in the Virginia Tech game in 2004, the South Florida games of the past two seasons and the Pitt game of 2007, that West Virginia got married to some of the play calls in the game plan. WVU ran Noel Devine almost exclusively to the right against Rutgers, and put the ball in Brown's hands on third and short for a rushing attempt every time. Again, there's something to be said for sticking to the game plan, but once things don't work, there should be an alternative to go to.
Head coach Bill Stewart noted that WVU was just a whisker away from breaking Devine for some big runs, and if that's the case, then it's understandable that the coaches would keep trying that play. However, Devine never even got into the mode of gaining four or five yards per play.
From an outside perspective, it can be difficult to discern the overall strategy of a game plan. In that light, it's probably not fair to criticize out-of-hand. Some plays are called to set up defensive reactions, which can then be capitalized on with a different play out of the same formation. However, against Rutgers, it didn't seem like a great deal of that was evident. An unscientific count reveals that twenty-four of WVU's 50 rushes were either right side runs by Devine or QB keepers out of the shotgun by Brown. Is that lack of variety a cause of WVU's inconsistency on offense? Or is it just the case of coaches concentrating on a few things each week?
As for the solution? The only one that can be counted on is time. More practice repetitions plus more game experience equals better performance – for both the players and the coaches. Making decisions and executing under the gun of the faster-ticking play clock is much, much easier than the luxury fans and writers have of second guessing with the aid of play-by-play sheets, game replays and the like. However, if West Virginia is to increase its scoring output and take a bit of pressure off its defense, it's going to have to become a bit more varied in its in-game calls and keep opposing defenses off balance.