On the surface, the plan was good. When opposing defenses loaded up against the run, head coach Bill Stewart and his staff didn't want to "bang their heads against the wall" as they termed it time and again. The Mountaineers were going to throw the ball. They weren't going to run it into a line of massed defenders and get nothing for their efforts. They were going to, to steal a phrase, "hit ‘em where they ain't" and take advantage of what the defense gave them
Much of this was based on the euphoria following West Virginia's win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The popular review of that game held that WVU did just what Stewart said it would do – throw the ball downfield and make plays. And sure enough, one such play occurred. Tito Gonzales' 79-yard touchdown reception was one of the highlights of the game, and seemed to promise more of the same in 2008.
That play, like predictions of another Top Ten season and a return to the BCS, turned out to be built on too much hype and not enough substance. Gonzales' catch and run accounted for more than half of WVU's passing yardage in the game. In reality, WVU won that game as it did most others over the past four years – with a devastating rushing attack.
Still, the promise of attacking downfield remained for the 2008 season. Unfortunately, it never came. Although West Virginia is throwing the ball a bit more this year, and has thrown fewer of the detested, yet still often-effective, bubble screens, the Mountaineers are actually less productive through the air than a year ago. The 2008 team is averaging just 134.8 yards through the air this year, as opposed to 159.0 a year ago. The vast majority of West Virginia's passes are still screens, swings, and short outs, while the middle of the field gets tested about as often as a Rhodes Scholar in a spelling bee. Whatever the reasons for this, the fact is that WVU has not, and is not, doing exactly what the coaches say they need to do – namely, "pitch and catch".
Now, if something is being missed here – if, for instance, pitch and catch is a euphemism for "throw it so short that we can't be intercepted", then the plan is good. To an extent, it's even understandable. Patrick White, for all his gifts, isn't a great thrower, so asking him to put the ball into tight spots wouldn't be the right move. However, the Mountaineers avoid the area of the field inside the numbers as if it was filled with poison ivy, and that's certainly no secret to other teams as well. Stewart notes that foes with good cornerbacks can lock down West Virginia's wideouts and play eight or nine in the box, but that begs the question: When WVU goes four or five wide, are those slot receivers even part of the passing game? Or is it, as appeared in the latest loss to Pitt, just window dressing in an attempt to get defenders away from the line of scrimmage and open up some space for the run game?
Against the Panthers, West Virginia again played it extremely safe in the passing game. One ball in the middle of the end zone to Dorrell Jalloh was dropped out of the five-wide set, but that play (which resulted in a touchdown a week ago against Louisville) was never run anywhere other than the red zone. WVU's only appreciable mid-field completions came in the last minute of the game, when it had no choice but to throw the ball. Before that, Pitt's safeties had little to worry about in their areas of coverage, and thus were free to roll to the line to help stuff the Mountaineer rushing attack.
Certainly, the answers to West Virginia's offensive woes aren't as simple to implement as the forgoing may suggest. Like it or not, WVU's offensive personnel losses from a year ago, coupled with the fact that all of its remaining offensive threats are of the same style, made this year's results inevitable, if unseen by anyone prior to the season. But yet another factor, one that has become so common that it is now overlooked, also came into play – the lack of a playmaking wideout.
While West Virginia's wide receivers have certain, differing skills, the ability to run precise routes and beat even respectable one-on-one coverage isn't one of them. Or, at least, no one has seen it because it hasn't been given a chance to develop. In the spring, Bradley Starks routinely made good catches and solid runs, but injuries and a shaky start put him on the back burner. The corps' inability or unwillingness to attack the ball in the air or beat defenders for a catch also apparently weighed into the decision to keep the ball out of harm's way. And while that again kept interceptions low, it also kept the passing offense from being anything more than it was in 2007.
In the end analysis, West Virginia simply doesn't have the weapons to make plays in the downfield passing game, unless the coverage or competition is abysmal in that regard. While the occasional big play does occur, it's simply not nearly enough to get opposing defenses off the line of scrimmage. WVU would need to make four or five big plays in the passing game to make that happen, and that level of achievement is beyond its reach.