Turnovers, special teams to blame for WVU’s struggles
MORGANTOWN - Say what you will about West Virginia's struggle to win football games this season. Blame it on coaching or effort or defensive lapses or offensive inconsistency.
Depending upon your point of view, you've likely touched on one or all of those. So has Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen.
But as a team that was the overwhelming choice to win the Big East limps into its final three games just hoping to hang on, the offense ranks No. 12 in the country in total yards and the defense is No. 23 in yards allowed.
Take a guess at how many teams in the current Associated Press Top 25 have a better combined ranking in offense and defense than West Virginia. We'll give you a moment while we play the "Jeopardy" theme.
Do di do do-do-do di do, do di do di do; do-do-do-do-do ...
Give up? There are only four schools in the country that have a better combined ranking in total offense and total defense than does West Virginia's No. 35 (12 plus 23). Wisconsin, ranked No. 16, is ninth in total offense and 11th in total defense (20). Stanford (a combined No. 26), Alabama (31) and Boise State (also 26), ranked Nos. 3 through 5, are the others.
The top two teams in the country, No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Oklahoma State, have a combined offense-defense rank of 90 and 113, respectively (LSU is No. 87 in offense and OSU No. 113 in defense). Aside from WVU and the four teams mentioned, no other Top 25 team has a combined offense-defense rank in the top 40. Somehow, No. 17 Kansas State and No. 24 Auburn each have a combined rank of No. 164.
Cincinnati, WVU's opponent this week, is No. 41 in total offense and No. 48 in defense for a combined total of 89.
Now granted, those numbers don't necessarily mean a lot and can be explained away in a lot of cases. Take LSU, for example. With a defense ranked No. 3, does it really matter that the Tigers are offensively challenged? And if Oklahoma State can score 100 points a game, is a wretched defense really that much of a burden?
Still, there is something to be said for being able to play both sides of the ball. Fifteen of those Top 25 teams are at least in the top half of the NCAA's statistical rankings in both total offense and total defense. Of the 10 that are not, seven make up for deficiencies on one side of the ball by ranking in the top 10 on the other.
Yet there is West Virginia, statistically in the 80th percentile in both - and one of just four teams in the country that ranks in the Top 25 of both (along with Wisconsin, Stanford and Boise) - languishing near irrelevancy.
The problem, of course, is obvious but still worth pointing out. There is more to the game than moving the ball and stopping movement. Two things above all others can render those numbers immaterial.
Special teams and turnovers.
West Virginia's special teams issues are obvious. They go beyond mere statistics (two kickoffs, a punt and a blocked field goal returned for touchdowns; four punts shanked out of bounds after traveling 14 yards or less), but even those are compelling.
The Mountaineers rank No. 106 out of 120 FBS teams in net punting. They are No. 111 in yards allowed per punt return and No. 102 in yards allowed per kickoff return. WVU ranks highly in punt return and kickoff return average, but those are essentially statistical glitches caused by a handful of good returns versus most that are not. For instance, West Virginia's opponents have punted the ball 52 times, but the Mountaineers have returned only 18. And while Tavon Austin averages 14.5 yards per return (No. 8 nationally), he has returned only 15 and let just as many bounce and roll.
Just as significant as special teams, though, is the turnover problem. West Virginia has turned the ball over 14 times in nine games. The Mountaineers have also gained 14 turnovers. In other words, they are smack dab in the middle of the pack (tied for No. 60) and one of 10 schools with a turnover margin of zero.
Not bad, right? Wrong. Twenty-two of the teams in the AP Top 25 rank higher. The top two teams in the country in turnover margin are also the top two in the AP poll, albeit in reverse order - Oklahoma State and LSU. Cincinnati is third.
In other words, it's not enough just to be average in turnover margin. A team has to be good or great. West Virginia has been neither. And here's the number that illustrates the problem as well as any statistic could: Of the 14 turnovers WVU has gained, 13 came in the six games the Mountaineers won. In the three they lost they forced one turnover. The offensive turnovers aren't quite as glaring, but there is still a real pattern: WVU averages one turnover per game in its wins and 2.7 in its losses.
There are other statistics that probably tell a part of West Virginia's story - 96th in sacks, 81st in red-zone defense, 113th in time of possession. But those aren't much more relevant than ranking 14th in first downs, 27th in first downs allowed and red-zone offense or being in the top half of fewest sacks allowed (particularly given the number of passes thrown), third-down conversions (both for and against) or penalties.
Take those special teams and turnover numbers to heart, though, because - at least from a performance standpoint - those have been the difference.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.