WVU eyes balance between smart, fast
MORGANTOWN - Take a look at the failings of West Virginia's offense over the last two games and it's not easy to pinpoint a cause.
Dana Holgorsen, not surprisingly, points to tempo. Holgorsen is a big believer in tempo.
"We haven't played with great tempo,'' Holgorsen said. "When we play best, we have great tempo.''
It's not that his offense has to play at break-neck speed, but he does like it to play fast. It's all in how the game is going and if there's an opportunity to speed up the pace, go for it. That tends to put a defense on its heels and then any success snowballs.
The problem is there hasn't been much success of late, so it's dangerous to speed up the pace. Do that and one risks quick three-and-outs that put an overmatched defense back on the field in a hurry. But fail to pick up the pace and it becomes easier for opposing defenses to substitute, make adjustments and stop that offense.
There has to be a balance between playing smart and playing fast.
"There are things that you need to have settled. A good balance of that is when we're at our best,'' Holgorsen said. "We were probably a little too settled last week [during a 55-14 loss to Kansas State], which is 100 percent my fault. We should have pushed the envelope on some things.''
It's not just tempo, though. Another thing West Virginia was great at during a 5-0 start was mixing plays, and that's more than just a run-pass ratio.
The Mountaineers were able to spread defenses not just horizontally, but also vertically. A decent running game forced defenses to remain strong in the box, Tavon Austin forced them to cover the field from sideline to sideline and Stedman Bailey provided a deep threat that stretched the defense down the field.
In the last two games, though, that deep threat hasn't been there. Geno Smith's longest pass completion against Kansas State was just 13 yards. He had a 38-yarder to Austin the week before in a 49-14 loss at Texas Tech. But those were the only two pass plays of more than 20 yards in the two games.
In the previous five games, WVU had 26 pass plays of more than 20 yards.
Perhaps part of that can be blamed on an injury to Bailey, who sat out the second half of the game at Texas Tech and was ineffective (four catches for 34 yards) against Kansas State. But he didn't catch a pass of more than 16 yards in the first half at Texas Tech, either, after having seven catches of 30 yards or more in the five games prior to that.
So when analyzing West Virginia's offensive woes, it might be wise, too, to examine the vertical passing game.
But there are a lot of things that go into that, not the least of which is giving Smith the protection he needs while his receivers run longer routes, along with the receivers being able to run those routes against tighter coverage. Smith was also not as accurate as he had been on the deeper routes, especially at Texas Tech.
To compound matters, when defenses did a better job of covering the deep routes, the Mountaineers didn't take advantage underneath.
"First, we have to protect,'' Holgorsen said. "We know who Texas had coming off the edge, so we were conscious of that and didn't throw vertical very much. Texas Tech was more press. We didn't handle the press very well at receiver. Geno was not very accurate down the field. We threw down the field six or eight times.
"Then against Kansas State, the pass rush was very good. They were rotating a lot of guys and they were athletic. There wasn't a specific guy we were scared of, but we were aware of them. They did a good job of getting to us, but their corner coverage was off. We should have done a better job of completing the ball underneath.''
In other words, it has been a variety of issues that have curtailed the offense, from tempo to recognizing opportunities to throw the ball short.
"It's a combination of a lot of things,'' Holgorsen said. "It's not the plays we're calling. We called plays that would have gotten the ball down the field. Whether we broke down up front or Geno got his eyes away from it, we didn't do a good job with it.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.