For WVU, it comes down to this
TAMPA, Fla. - West Virginia plays its final and most significant game of the season tonight against a South Florida team playing its final and most significant game.
For the No. 22 Mountaineers (8-3, 4-2 Big East), a win clinches a share of the Big East championship and keeps alive their hopes of earning a BCS bowl berth. Cincinnati would also need to win at home against Connecticut Saturday in order for the second of those goals to be met.
South Florida (5-6, 1-5), meanwhile, needs a win to become bowl eligible.
The winner, though, could be determined greatly by which team overcomes being hamstrung on offense.
South Florida's issue is pretty straight forward: Junior quarterback B.J. Daniels has missed the last game and a half with a strained shoulder, and his availability is not likely to be known until the teams kick off shortly after 8 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. Without him, the Bulls are quite simply not as dangerous on offense.
West Virginia's offensive dilemma? Well that's a bit more complex, but no less daunting.
After - and despite - WVU's 21-20 win over Pitt last Friday night, coach Dana Holgorsen lamented that his team was forced to throw out perhaps 60 percent of its offensive plays, namely the dropback passes that define the scheme. The reason was that the offensive line couldn't block Pitt's pass rush. The words Holgorsen used to describe the concession were "incredibly discouraging.''
Holgorsen's solution against Pitt was to run the ball and make more use of screens and short, quick passes - plays which don't force the offensive line to pass protect as long. He also benched the right side of the line, replacing Tyler Rader and Pat Eger with Quinton Spain and Curtis Feigt, respectively.
So here's the problem against South Florida tonight: The Bulls are even better than Pitt at rushing the passer. They rank second in the country in sacks.
All of which begs the question: Is it time for Holgorsen to back off of those dropback passes right from the start and go with a game plan similar to the second half against Pitt, or does he roll the dice again on the offensive line and then adjust if necessary?
Holgorsen leans toward the latter, but has also begun preparing more to change horses in the middle of the stream.
"We've tapered it some,'' Holgorsen said of the emphasis on dropback passes. "But it's still all about how it looks within the game. You can go into every game and you can think that you can protect [the quarterback] or you think you can't protect him. And then if you are protecting him, you can call more pass plays. Or if you're not protecting him, you'd better quit calling as many pass plays.
"The preparation probably changes a little bit, but it's not going to change drastically. It's all about what you've got to do within the game based on what works and based on how the game is going.''
On the plus side, of course, is that as the Mountaineers have had to adjust their emphasis within games if quarterback Geno Smith is under too much pressure, they are becoming more adept at the alternatives to dropback passes. Against Pitt, for instance, WVU's run-pass ratio went from 10 runs and 16 passes in the first half to 20 runs and 15 passes in the second. And of those 15 passes, 12 were aimed at receivers behind or near the line of scrimmage or quick tosses over the middle.
Yes, Holgorsen would prefer to be able to air it out more than occasionally and see if Geno Smith can find Stedman Bailey or Ivan McCartney downfield. But if Smith doesn't have the time to do that, then at least there are alternatives.
"I have to pay attention to the flow of the game,'' Smith said. "Our offensive line has done a pretty good job all year. They blocked LSU [when Smith threw for 463 yards] and when they give us time and I can sit back there and throw the ball, we're a great offense.
"But at times they get beat. It's something that comes along with the game. ... But I think we'll be fine. It's not a major issue.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.