Offense remains a work in progress
MORGANTOWN - In West Virginia's first game of the season, the Mountaineers gained 409 yards and scored 24 points against FCS William & Mary. They needed a touchdown with 31/2 minutes to play just to win.
Through the next four games, those numbers declined. WVU was averaging less than 400 yards of total offense and just over 20 points per game. Last week's loss at Baylor inflated the scoring average thanks to 42 points, but two of the touchdowns were scored by defense and special teams and two others after the Mountaineers had fallen behind 56-14 and Baylor substituted.
The total yardage figure was again right about at the average - 394 yards.
And so through six games, playing under a coach whose calling card always has been offense, West Virginia ranks 94th (out of 123 FBS schools) in scoring, 79th in total offense, 102nd in red-zone offense, 105th in pass completion percentage, 113th in third-down conversion rate, 115th in turnovers and 118th in fumbles lost.
Of all the offensive statistics kept by the NCAA, West Virginia's highest rank is in first downs, at No. 40.
"I knew we were going to be a work in progress,'' said that offensive-minded coach, Dana Holgorsen. "I knew it and everybody knew it.''
Yes, but few expected it to be this much work.
"I wanted it to come together quicker. I wish I was sitting here after six games saying that we know who we are, where we're at and where we're going,'' Holgorsen said. "That's not the current situation and it's not anyone's fault.
"We've played some pretty good teams. We have a lot of inexperience and we have some injuries. We're dealing with a lot of stuff that teams across the country are dealing with.''
Indeed, West Virginia's offense has issues, not the least of which is inexperience. Few expected the Mountaineers to match the record-breaking numbers that Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and others helped create the last two seasons. The quarterbacks, receivers and running backs are almost all new, some arriving on campus only this summer. The offensive line is in transition.
And even the offensive position coaches are all new. Ron Crook (line), Lonnie Galloway (receivers) and JaJuan Seider (backs) are in their first year, and coordinator Shannon Dawson moved from receivers to quarterbacks coach.
Yet Holgorsen insists the offense is getting better.
Well, at least he thinks it's making progress.
"You can see some things happening that show improvement,'' Holgorsen said. "Whether you want to believe that or not, you can see some things. We need to improve so we can win some games.''
The truth is, the Mountaineers need to improve just to stay in some games.
At Baylor last weekend, in what would turn into a 73-42 drubbing, the offense once again seemed lost. For the most part, the philosophy of attack seemed to be to throw the ball as far as possible and see if anyone could catch it. Time and again the Mountaineers went deep.
It worked a few times. Blind-squirrel-and-acorn worked, or so it seemed. But Holgorsen insisted that the strategy wasn't just a prayer, but rather taking the one thing Baylor's defense seemed to be giving.
Smith and Bailey no doubt would have taken advantage of that. Newbie quarterback Clint Trickett and all those receivers he met about 10 minutes ago? Not so much.
"We've got a quarterback trying to throw a post route to five different guys that he's never thrown that to,'' Holgorsen said. "Based on how fast the receivers are and the relationship between the quarterback and that specific receiver, the ball needs to be thrown accordingly. This is stuff that happens in the course of a second. Last year, it was Geno Smith to Stedman Bailey. That was easier because they've been doing it for eight years.
"We got some to Kevin White. That looked good. We got Charles Sims loose down the field. We think good things are going to happen. We have to keep improving and getting better. We tried to attack and we'll try again.''
The hope, of course, is that it begins to click. Perhaps when West Virginia lines up again - against Texas Tech Saturday at Mountaineer Field - the timing will be better. Then again, maybe the deep post isn't what the Red Raiders are giving up. If not, you work on something else.
"We're going to try and put ourselves in the best situation we possibly can. If it doesn't work, we need to do it again and again and again until it works out,'' Holgorsen said. "You can't use a magic wand or put some sort of a spell over them to make that stuff work. You just have to play. You need reps, time and practice.
"It's a hard game and we've played good teams. It is what it is.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.