Special teams and turnovers.
West Virginia's special teams issues are obvious. They go beyond mere statistics (two kickoffs, a punt and a blocked field goal returned for touchdowns; four punts shanked out of bounds after traveling 14 yards or less), but even those are compelling.
The Mountaineers rank No. 106 out of 120 FBS teams in net punting. They are No. 111 in yards allowed per punt return and No. 102 in yards allowed per kickoff return. WVU ranks highly in punt return and kickoff return average, but those are essentially statistical glitches caused by a handful of good returns versus most that are not. For instance, West Virginia's opponents have punted the ball 52 times, but the Mountaineers have returned only 18. And while Tavon Austin averages 14.5 yards per return (No. 8 nationally), he has returned only 15 and let just as many bounce and roll.
Just as significant as special teams, though, is the turnover problem. West Virginia has turned the ball over 14 times in nine games. The Mountaineers have also gained 14 turnovers. In other words, they are smack dab in the middle of the pack (tied for No. 60) and one of 10 schools with a turnover margin of zero.
Not bad, right? Wrong. Twenty-two of the teams in the AP Top 25 rank higher. The top two teams in the country in turnover margin are also the top two in the AP poll, albeit in reverse order - Oklahoma State and LSU. Cincinnati is third.
In other words, it's not enough just to be average in turnover margin. A team has to be good or great. West Virginia has been neither. And here's the number that illustrates the problem as well as any statistic could: Of the 14 turnovers WVU has gained, 13 came in the six games the Mountaineers won. In the three they lost they forced one turnover. The offensive turnovers aren't quite as glaring, but there is still a real pattern: WVU averages one turnover per game in its wins and 2.7 in its losses.
There are other statistics that probably tell a part of West Virginia's story - 96th in sacks, 81st in red-zone defense, 113th in time of possession. But those aren't much more relevant than ranking 14th in first downs, 27th in first downs allowed and red-zone offense or being in the top half of fewest sacks allowed (particularly given the number of passes thrown), third-down conversions (both for and against) or penalties.
Take those special teams and turnover numbers to heart, though, because - at least from a performance standpoint - those have been the difference.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.