I'll be the first to admit that other shortcomings also contributed to WVU's disappointing loss. Kickoff coverage made its weekly negative appearance. WVU got away from Noel Devine, who carried the ball just five times in the second half (and none in the fourth quarter) after recording 11 carries for 127 yards and a score in the opening 30 minutes. Misreads in the passing game and injuries also took their toll. But none had the impact that Florida State's first down plays had on the game.
With an inexperienced quarterback in E.J. Manuel, who was making just his fourth start, it was imperative that the Seminoles keep pressure off their young starter. They were able to do just that with a variety of safe play calls, including naked bootlegs, rollouts, sweeps and options that attacked the edge of West Virginia's defense while keeping decision-making duties to a minimum. Manuel often only had one read to make in the passing game (whether to throw the ball in the flat or on a short out route), which allowed him a mostly stress-free game in that play phase. And making it all the easier was the success on many of those plays, which set FSU up in second down and short situations for much of the afternoon.
A look at the numbers reveals the damage the Noles did on first down. In the opening quarter, FSU had eight first down plays on which it gained 63 yards for an average of almost eight yards per try. The second quarter was even better, as Florida State ran ten first down plays for 83 yards (an 8.3 per play average). The third quarter continued the trend, with five plays for 43 yards (8.6 yard per try). Only in the fourth quarter did WVU have even a bit of success, when it "held" FSU to 33 yards on nine first down plays. Still, for the game, WVU allowed 222 yards on 32 first down plays, and those numbers weren't skewed by any huge gains. FSU consistently gained six, seven and eight yards on its opening plays, thus putting them into great situations on later downs. No defense is going to have any success in those situations, and West Virginia didn't in this contest.
The ramifications of this success were many. Florida State converted seven of its 14 third down situations, and many of those chances were of the short yardage variety. (FSU probably set an all-time record for second down and two situations in a game as well.) And while time of possession can often be misleading, in this case it wasn't. FSU kept the ball for 37:07, and had two quarters, the second and the fourth, where it held the pigskin for 10:20 and 11:18.
Those numbers, in turn, kept West Virginia's offense off the field. WVU managed just 56 plays (as opposed to Florida State's 70) and while some of that was due to West Virginia's play calling in the second half, the fact that the Mountaineer defense couldn't get off the field for much of the game was a contributing factor. The Seminoles did not have a three-and-out series in the entire game, and the Mountaineers forced just two punts in ten FSU possessions.
Why couldn't the Mountaineers stop FSU on first down? That's the real mystery, and one that probably has multiple answers. West Virginia was woefully unprepared for Florida State's conservative offensive attack, and couldn't get players in the right position to either pressure Manuel or cover receivers in the flat. Likewise, it couldn't contain on the perimeter, as FSU ran options and sweeps that WVU couldn't handle. Whether that's a coaching issue or a player performance issue is up for debate. WVU's coaches called several edge blitzes to try to disrupt timing on those plays, but Mountaineer defenders missed at least three chances for sacks. Despite the almost total absence of long routes, West Virginia's corners and safeties didn't play press coverage on receivers, thus allowing Seminole pass catchers room to operate. And in the end, all of those things contributed to Florida State's first down domination.