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.''