Half And Half

What's the story behind West Virginia's pattern of first half doldrums and second half domination? And is it those "adjustments" everyone talks about that are to credit for those reversals of fortune?

Ask the first question of Mountaineer players and coaches, and you get the same sort of responses that you might get when you ask someone why they like a certain color.

"If we knew, we probably wouldn't be a slow-starting team," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said with evident frustration after Saturday's 35-13 win over Connecticut.

Players, to a man, echo those thoughts.

"I don't know. It's just like we have to see how teams are going to play us," Mortty Ivy said.

A day later, Bill Stewart listed the first half woes.

"I saw blown chances and we missed passes and we dropped some balls. I didn't think our offensive line even came to play until the second half. I didn't like the way we were tracking them on defense. I just don't think we were breaking on the ball."

Now, before anyone tries to parse and microanalyze Stewart's statements, it should also be noted that he placed blame on the coaching staff as well. He said that to both his staff and to the team at halftime, and challenged everyone involved to do better in the second half.

With the problem established, however, "fixing" it may be another matter. Stewart made being ready to play from the opening kickoff a priority last week, and the players didn't respond. So, whose fault is it? The coaches for not finding a solution, or the players for not responding to several different approaches employed to change their slow-starting pattern?

First, this could be an issue that disappears by itself. WVU might come out and march down the field twice in the first quarter against Cincinnati. It might extend its defensive dominance to 60 minutes. It could be just coincidence that WVU has started slowly and come on strong. Or it could, as Ivy says, be that the Mountaineers have to see, live and in person, what teams are doing against them before West Virginia can respond. Just as some people learn by reading and viewing, while others learn by doing, it could be that this team is a hands-on sort of group. While the coaching staff has been pleased with the way the team concentrates and works in meeting rooms and on the practice field, it may be that the 2008 squad is composed of process learners, that have to see it live and in person to really make it sink in.

If the reasons for the slow starts are difficult to fathom, the second half turnarounds are just as puzzling. The buzzword thrown about by the majority is "adjustments", but that goes as far in covering it as "politics" does in describing what goes on in Washington, D.C. One thing it doesn't really cover, however, is major changes in either strategy or tactics.

The commonly held view is that coaches go in at halftime and make changes to their schemes. The reality is that there simply isn't enough time to do so, at least on a major scale. A team that has practiced something all week can't suddenly start blocking different players or executing plays drawn up on the Dry Erase board.

Adjustments, in this case, cover far subtler changes. Coaches will certainly identify different plays or formations in the playbook that might work against the defensive looks a foe is offering. A blitz that wasn't in the game plan might be pulled out. But those halftime adjustments are mostly just reviewing assignments and correcting mistakes. While there are a few minor tweaks, there's just not nearly as much of the wholesale changes envisioned by fans.

"It's just execution. There aren't any big adjustments that we make," defensive lineman Scooter Berry confirmed. "We worked on gap control all week, and we just messed up on that a few times in the first half. In the second half, we executed better, and it turned out well. We stayed in our lanes better. At halftime, the coaches sat us down and just told us to stay in our gaps, and we did that."

In the end, there aren't any magic potions to solving these sorts of problems. West Virginia's coaches will continue to work to find a way to get the players hitting on all cylinders at the outset, while players will also try to find ways to hit the field running. There aren't any fingers of blame to point, or being pointed. It's simply one of the vagaries of the game, and one that might well just be a part of WVU's makeup this year.

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