On The Line

West Virginia's offensive line took another step forward on Saturday against Syracuse, but the quest for even higher levels of execution and protection is still an ongoing process.

Syracuse sold out in efforts to jam running and cutback lanes, and thus was able to hold Noel Devine to a long gain of just 15 yards on the day. The Orange didn't shut Devine down entirely, and West Virginia's offensive line did a good job in blocking against an aggressive, gap-shooting defense, but by its very nature such a scheme is going to make a few tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Faced with that expected tactic, WVU went to the air, throwing numerous passes in the flat and others deep downfield to take advantage of weak spots in the Syracuse defensive scheme. The Mountaineers completed 25 of 34 passes (two of those incompletions were drops) and made the Orange pay for their commitment to stop the run.

That response was fine with WVU's offensive line in general and tackle Donny Barclay in particular. While the Mountaineer line prides itself on being able to block for the run against any defensive alignment, Barclay recognizes that getting the right play calls against a defense makes proper execution easier.

"I think we are the type of team that whatever play is called, we are going to give everything to do it," Barclay said following WVU's convincing 34-13 win. "We'll fight for every yard no matter what the play is. I think we did pretty well."

West Virginia didn't pile up the big rushing numbers it did in the first four games of the season, as it compiled just 127 yards on the ground, averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Much of that, however, was due to Syracuse's defensive scheme, and as a result the passing lanes were open for Jarrett Brown and backup Geno Smith. Pass protection, a problem over the first four games, was better with one noticeable breakdown. That came on WVU's last possession of the first half, when the line allowed two consecutive sacks that killed a possible scoring threat.

"There were some times we missed some blitzes, and someone got loose on those two sacks. That was just a screw-up on our part," Barclay noted. "But I think [offensive line coach Dave] Johnson prepared us well and made some good calls. They had some fire zone blitzes and safeties coming off the edge."

For the most part, both Brown and Smith were able to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball without much interference. Brown did shrug off one potential sack to run for a first down, but other than that protection was better overall than it has been in recent weeks. Brown was able to step up into the pocket to deliver a couple of balls -- something that he hasn't had the time or room to do in recent weeks. West Virginia's line will have to continue to improve to keep that option open, however, as WVU faces good pass rushers in each of its next three contests.

Preparation was a key for the game, according to Barclay.

"I think we knew pretty much what they were going to do. We were prepared for it. Whatever they showed the past couple of games, that's pretty much what they did We had a good idea of their blitzes and what they were going to do, and we were able to handle it."

The line's play is far from a finished product, but improvement can certainly be seen from where the group began the season. Twists and stunts are being handled better, and communication appears to be better as well. Even with the flip-flop, for the third time this year, of Joe Madsen to center and Eric Jobe to guard, did not seem to cause any problems in continuity or effectiveness. The next challenge for the line is to continue to improve its recognition of different stunts, twists, and rush games up front, and blitz pickups from the second level. Experience in seeing those in live situations, and working against them in practice, are the twin keys to that improvement, and it's often a process that can't be rushed made to go as quickly as desired. Given WVU's progress to date, however, there is certainly reason to think that the Mountaineer offensive front can be even better by the time key conference games begin dotting the schedule.


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