Conversion rate is dropping
MORGANTOWN - There have been times this season when West Virginia's offense has been at its best when the situations it faced seemed the worst.
Perhaps more than anything else, that's what separates the Mountaineers' best performances and their worst.
Argue all you want about a lack of a running game or Geno Smith's accuracy issues or the injuries or failures or defections that have afflicted the receiving corps. All of those factors no doubt have contributed to a nosedive in offensive production from the first five games of the season to the last four.
But consider, too, how successful the Mountaineers were during a 5-0 start in converting third-down plays and many fourth-down attempts, as well. Then consider how ineffective they have been in those situations of late.
"We've not done a very good job of making plays when we had to make them,'' quarterback Geno Smith said. "It seems like we made a lot of them earlier.''
Indeed, a look at some of the numbers bears that out.
In the first four games of the season, West Virginia converted 61 percent of its third downs into firsts. That led the nation. And then in the fifth game, a win at Texas, when West Virginia failed to convert third downs (just 3 of 12), it went for it on fourth and was wildly successful. Five times WVU went for it on fourth down and five times it gained either a first down or a touchdown.
Through the first five games, the Mountaineers converted 60 percent of their third- and fourth-down plays combined. That will make any offense better.
But during a four-game losing streak that West Virginia (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) will try to snap Saturday in a 7 p.m. home game against No. 13 Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1), that 60 percent success rate has dropped to less than 40.
While there have been some moderate successes (3 of 4 fourth downs against TCU, a 50 percent third-down conversion rate against Kansas State), overall the Mountaineers simply have not been able to make the plays to keep drives alive that they made during that 5-0 start. The third-down conversion rate has dropped from 60 percent in the first five games to 36.3 percent the last four. And while the fourth-down rate is actually pretty good (50 percent), that's on 20 attempts over those four games as opposed to just nine in the first five.
Any team that is forced to go for it an average of five times a game on fourth down obviously has issues other than its fourth-down conversion rate.
Dana Holgorsen obviously isn't a big proponent of gambling on fourth-down conversions because he'd rather his offense didn't get into those predicaments. But after matching a season-high with seven fourth-down attempts in last week's loss at Oklahoma State, he said he would probably reconsider only one of them.
"If you look at all seven of them, there's only one of them that I questioned after the game and that was the one in the fourth quarter that we were backed up on our 35 or 40, somewhere in there,'' Holgorsen said. "Looking back at it, I kind of questioned that one a little bit. But I think at that point we were down 14, they had just had an 80-yard score and we made the decision to go for it and didn't get it. Other than that, the other six, I'd do it again.''
The Mountaineers, down 48-34 with 11 minutes to play, went for it on fourth-and-6 at their own 39. Smith's attempt at a short lob pass to tailback Andrew Buie while the protection was breaking down was batted by a defensive lineman and fell incomplete. OSU scored two plays later to put the game away.
In all, the Mountaineers converted four of the seven fourth downs against the Cowboys, including three of four before that first failed attempt in the fourth quarter. One of them led to a touchdown, another kept a long drive alive and the only failed attempt was when Shawne Alston gained nothing on a fourth-and-goal at the 2 at the end of that same 16-play drive.
And, of course, the other success came under fairly bizarre circumstances. Smith had to leave the game when his helmet came off and Paul Millard replaced him for a fourth-and-13 play at the OSU 37. With the Cowboys perhaps not seriously considering that Millard would throw despite the down and distance, he sat in the pocket forever and eventually hit Ryan Nehlen in the end zone for a touchdown.
"That was on the  and I didn't feel good about the field goal because of the wind. I didn't feel good about a punt because you have a chance of only gaining 15 yards,'' Holgorsen said. "So we took a chance and it worked out. Then a couple of the goal line ones, we had third-and-short, fourth-and-short. We've got to be able to get it. If we are going to be successful offensively, we have to be able to get those.''
Holgorsen was also asked if perhaps the penchant for going for it on fourth down might have anything to do with a lack of confidence in his team's defense - punt the ball and he's almost conceding another score.
He said no, that wasn't a consideration.
"It's our job offensively to score,'' Holgorsen said. "It's our job to keep going forward.''
If that means gambling on fourth down, so be it. When WVU's offense has been at its best, those gambles were working. But he insists it isn't something he wants to do on a regular basis.
"I don't want to get into a habit of going for it on fourth down five to seven times a game. I do not want to,'' Holgorsen said. "And if you look back at the games, there's been a couple of times this year that we've done that, but over the course of the 20-some games since I have been here, that hasn't been the norm. And I don't expect it to be. But it's all the situations. The situations dictate that.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.