Mountaineers offense looking to find rhythm
MORGANTOWN - It sounds overly simplistic and perhaps it is.
But when trying to solve the mystery of why West Virginia's once-white-hot offense has suddenly gone frigid, rhythm and mentality have to be figured into the mix.
Yes, there are more tangible difficulties the No. 23 Mountaineers (5-2, 2-2 Big 12) are addressing as they prepare for Saturday's 3 p.m. home game with TCU (5-3, 2-3). Star receiver Stedman Bailey has limped through the last game and a half, quarterback Geno Smith hasn't been as accurate, the protection and the run blocking of the offensive line has tailed off and the offense still awaits the return of tailback Shawne Alston.
But West Virginia also managed to overcome such difficulties earlier, and has not done so in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State in which just three offensive touchdowns were scored, two of them on short-field drives of just 54 yards.
Could it be something so simple as getting into a successful rhythm and seeing one success snowball into others?
"Yeah,'' Smith said. "I think any offense, any team does better when the momentum's on your side and you get in a rhythm. I think the great teams and the champions do a great job of maintaining things when the momentum isn't on their side and when things aren't particularly going your way.''
It's certainly been the case that in the last two games, the momentum has quickly gone toward West Virginia's opponents. Texas Tech scored on its first two possessions, then three in a row in building a 35-7 halftime lead. Kansas State's offense wasn't stopped on any of its first eight drives.
But neither of those circumstances was much different than the two previous games that West Virginia won. Texas scored on five straight possessions at one point. Baylor scored on four of five and was in scoring range (missing a field goal) on the other near the start.
The difference is that West Virginia's offense in those cases always answered. Smith and Co. had early success in those games - and the three to open the season, as well - and never doubted that they could answer any challenge.
Against Tech and K-State, though, there was no early success. At Tech, five of the first six drives ended in punts or on failed fourth downs. The Kansas State game started with WVU punting the first three times it had the ball.
Might they have been different if West Virginia's offense had started with some early success? Instead of lopsided losses, could they have been 70-63 shootouts like the Baylor game, regardless of what WVU's defense was doing?
Smith thinks perhaps that's true.
"But you have to find ways to fight through that,'' he said. "Every game is not going to be as [smooth] as you want it to be, everything going in your favor - balls being caught, incredible one-handed catches, great blocking, backs hitting the holes.
"Everyone has bad days. The thing I think we need to do is stay the course and not let [failure] seep into our minds.''
Again, that doesn't address more specific, concrete issues like injuries or blocking or simply making the pass-and-catch plays. Those have to be worked on, of course. And it doesn't take into account that the defenses WVU has played the past two games are far better than those it faced before.
But all of that tends to be mitigated by enjoying the kind of early success West Virginia enjoyed on offense earlier in the season. The importance of simply getting on a roll can't be overstated.
The trick is having that early success. Against Baylor and Texas, the offense had the ball 25 times (excluding clock-running possessions to end each game) and scored 18. Throw in two missed field goals and two fumbles and there were only three possessions in those two games in which the offense actually failed to move the ball.
In the last two games, the offense has had 22 possessions and failed to score on 19. It is snowballing in the wrong direction. Each time the offense fails, it plants another seed of failure.
So what to do? Well, starting faster would be good. And when there are failures, they can't snowball into more failures.
"It's an experience thing. You can't coach that,'' Smith said. "One thing you can't coach is composure. And that goes not just for one person or four or five people on the team, but the entire team.
"The key thing for us is not to worry about circumstances or who we play or what they do in the sense of them throwing us off. We have to stay on track, on a steady pace.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.