Offensive Strategy

Does West Virginia's playcalling in 2009 really present a problem? Can the numbers that the Mountaineers have put up through three games be argued with in that regard? Do the turnovers suffered by WVU in its first three games call for an overhaul of the offensive system, or is this just a knee-jerk reaction to losing?

There have been many reactions, from many different quarters, following West Virginia's loss to Auburn. Some of those can be immediately discounted, as they come from people who, in the words of one of my correspondents, would bitch if West Virginia won the national title by ten points over USC because the Mountaineers didn't blow the Trojans out. Unfortunately, those people tend to be the most vocal, and can often dominate discussion on message boards and talk radio. They generate a lot of heat, but no real light, and in the end thinking fans can dismiss their noise.

Others blame West Virginia's play calling for the loss. They believe that West Virginia, which had 120 yards rushing in the first quarter against the Tigers, should have continued to run the ball, and ignored the pass. They felt that 25 carries by Noel Devine might have won the game, instead of the 15 he finished with. Others don't like West Virginia's offense at all, and would prefer a return to the ground-based attack of the previous coaching regime. (I do wonder why all of those people weren't springing to the defense of that scheme when detractors were saying West Virginia needed to pass the ball more.) Yet another contingent thinks, for some odd reason, that the coaching staff is sold on tricky plays and is calling them just for the sake of doing so.

Let's address those in order. First, while WVU did run the ball well in the first quarter, it should be noted that 71 of those yards came on one run. In the second quarter, Auburn took away the option pitch to Devine, and his carries in that quarter went for minus six, one, four and six yards. Am I arguing that Devine shouldn't get the ball more? No. I think 20 carries is a good goal (depending, of course, on what the defense does and how it adjusts) but giving the ball to him a set number of times is no more a magic bullet than throwing the ball deep with no hope of completing it three years ago was.

Those complaining that they miss running the ball, and that West Virginia is throwing it too much? Again, off base. Many of West Virginia's passes are really extended handoffs. The wide receiver and slot screens where the ball is passed horizontally down the line are very similar to toss sweeps, with the difference being that a receiver, not a pulling lineman, is expected to make the key block. (I'm also wondering at this point if the people carping about not running it enough are the same ones that were complaining about a lack of passing in 2005?) And do these people want West Virginia to go back to the Pitt and Virginia Tech games of a few years ago, when WVU stuck with one play series against a defense loaded to stop it, and had no success?

Finally, there's an idea floating that West Virginia's coaches are too concerned with showing how diverse it can be in playcalling at the expense of the team. This one seems to be the most crazy to me. No coach is going to risk a win for the sake of showing how smart he is, or how many different plays he can call. Whatever observers think of West Virginia's play calling, it's ridiculous to believe that those are being called in an attempt to show off their talents. In the end, it's wins and losses, not Xs and Os, that will lead to advancement for coaches, and they know it.

The criticism concerning throwing the ball too much is particularly rankling. A good offensive coaching staff uses the available talent to the best of its ability to gain yardage and score points. It doesn't matter how it achieves those goals, or at least it shouldn't. Does it really matter if you run or pass the ball to get down the field? Or do so with slip screens versus the iso? This debate of style over substance is ridiculous, and about as important as who wears what dress to the Oscars, yet to some it seems to be of vital importance.

Of course, there are times when game conditions dictate running versus passing, and those must be taken into account as well. But if what you are doing is successful, for the most part, then you keep doing it.

Two things before we go on. First, it would certainly be nice to have every tool in the box, and be able to run power football, throw deep, run sweeps, screens and traps, zone and assignment block, run the spread, the I, the veer and the wishbone, five wides and the run and shoot. But that's simply not realistic. The next best thing is to be as varied as possible, keep opponents off balance, and attack them where they are the weakest.

Second, I don't mean to suggest that I agree with every decision made by the coaching staff. I understand why the last screen to Noel Devine was called (to counteract Auburn's rush) but I think a draw (which West Virginia does have in its arsenal) might have been the better call, given the way that the Tigers defended the screen previously. Even a swing pass might have been better. I don't like trying to find Devine in the tall timber in the middle of the field. However, I simply don't see how there can be many complaints with a team and staff that have clearly maximized their talents, and are gaining yardage and scoring points at a rate that many did not think possible before the season.

So why all the ugliness from so many quarters? Again, I go back to a note I received the other day. It included this observation:

"I think the hole ripped into the Mountaineer fan base by the 2007 Pitt game and the Rich Rodriguez betrayal haunts the program to this day. Nothing that Bill Stewart will ever do will be good enough. Nothing short of a national title will ever satisfy the anger of Mountaineer fans, and even that may not do it."

It that's the case, then no amount of words, nor achievements on the field, are going to be salve enough for those wounds. But is that the prevailing opinion in Mountaineer Nation? Or just that of a smaller, but vocal minority? Or just the pot-stirring of those that have no other way to enjoy themselves than to rile up others? (A sad commentary on their lives, by the way.)

I'm not going to wind this up by saying that all is well, or that there aren't problems to be corrected. Kickoff coverage is still a concern, although it was greatly improved against the Tigers, where Trippe Hale, Jordan Roberts and Matt Lindamood performed very well. Turnovers are obviously a concern, as is the ball security exhibited by Jarrett Brown when scrambling. Third down defensive conversion rate is still something of a problem, although again improving from this time last year. I simply believe that all this angst over running versus throwing and playcalling is being overcooked. In the end, it's the results that count, and West Virginia is certainly moving the ball with its current repertoire. After all, who's to say that WVU might not have the same number of fumbles as interceptions if it reverted to a game plan that rushed the ball 70% of the time?

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