West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen had plenty on his plate in the days leading up to WVU's Thursday night game against Auburn. Going up against the size, speed and overall skills that the Tigers possess on defense is enough of a challenge for any coach, let alone a first-year coordinator who has seen his offense struggle with injuries and inconsistencies through the first month and a half of the season.
When the Mountaineers spotted Auburn 10 points right off the bat with a pair of first quarter interceptions that led to scores for the Tigers, you could almost feel the angst of the more than 60,000 fans crammed into Milan Puskar Stadium. Their concerns were certainly legitimate, what with the aforementioned Auburn defense and West Virginia's offensive struggles.
You know who wasn't worried? Mullen. Especially after a brief conversation with quarterback Patrick White following his second interception toss of the game.
"I told him to keep doing what he was coached to do," Mullen explained. "He's a good kid, knows what he's doing. He made a couple of mistakes but we certainly didn't lose any faith in him. We just had to keep calling our offense. He was fine. It took about two seconds of conversation and he was fine."
It wasn't as if White was trying to do too much. In fact, both of the throws looked like winners when White let go of the ball. They were just a tad off the mark.
"If it was a situation where he was doing his own thing and going outside the scheme of things, then you'd get upset," Mullen continued. "But the kid made a great play from Auburn. It was just something we needed to make a little minor adjustment to."
The Mountaineers finally got on the board with a Pat McAfee field goal, but Auburn struck again to increase its lead to 17-3 with 10:22 remaining in the second quarter. Even with a two-touchdown deficit, Mullen and the rest of West Virginia's offensive coaching staff stuck to the plan. The approach, Mullen said, never changed.
"No, it didn't because we had so much time left," Mullen admitted. "When we looked back at why we weren't scoring, it was our own doing. We felt really confident that if we kept practicing all that we had practiced over the past seven practices, that it would be ok. The kids held their poise and did a great job. Good things happened."
White picked himself up off the canvas to throw for 174 yards and three touchdowns, including longs of 42 and 44 yards to Dorrell Jalloh and Alric Arnett, respectively. Mullen was able to keep Auburn's vaunted defense off-balance all night with a brilliant blend of pass and run, with Noel Devine and Jock Sanders contributing big plays in space to open up the offense.
West Virginia did this without exposing White to any serious licks. The quarterback was knocked out of an earlier win over Rutgers after a blow to the head, and did not recover in time to take the field against Syracuse two weeks ago. While White's rushing numbers were miniscule (just eight net yards on the ground), he was just as effective as ever.
"He did a good job of reading, giving the ball to Noel when he needed to and pitching the ball out to Jock when he needed to," explained Mullen, who also serves as West Virginia's quarterbacks coach in addition to his play calling duties. "That limited his carries, but we specifically did not want to give him too many predesigned runs because he banged his head a week ago."
"He did a great job throwing the football," Mullen continued. "It was awesome to have him back. The last three football games he's only played four quarters. It was good to get him for four straight quarters. That really helped our offense."
The end result was a 34-point outburst, a statement victory, and renewed confidence in an offense that finally played to its potential.
"It's good in a lot of ways for recruiting on a national stage," Mullen said. "For our kids with four wins in a row now, we have an opportunity to build some confidence now for the home stretch here. Any win is big. You learn that a long time ago in Coaching 101. Any win is big because it's hard to win college football games, especially in this day and age.
"Clearly, beating a team from the SEC with a little bit of a rep and a lot of good football players means a little bit more, but every win is good."