West Virginia’s offense finally paid the price for their dreadful defense while the Washington State offense may have finally found rhythm despite another loss.
What was supposed to be a bit of a breather in the middle of the West Virginia’s baptism-by-fire Big 12 initiation, quickly turned into an old-fashioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After WVU ran consecutive offensive clinics against Baylor and Texas, the Texas Tech Red Raiders stole the show on Saturday and presented their own ‘how-to-stop the Air Raid attack’ tutorial. As a column that has simply gushed about the effectiveness, flexibility, and talent of the Mountaineers’ offense this season, it is strange to dissect a game in which West Virginia’s well-oiled wheels simply fell off the wagon.
First, we should just state the obvious: West Virginia’s porous defense finally caught up with it. In previous weeks, the Mountaineers' offense has been able to overcome this fatal flaw by putting up seventy points or rushing the ball for over 200 yards. But in a game that saw Texas Tech race out to 14-0 lead and go into halftime leading, 35-7, the Mountaineers’ offense was simply unable to recreate the unstoppable force they had generated the previous two weeks.
As most football fans will testify, playing from behind is a whole lot different than keeping the pedal to the metal when enjoying a lead. In this contest, the Mountaineers played from behind throughout and seemed to press more and more as the deficit continued to expand.
Very early in the contest, when the Mountaineers were actually in the game, quarterback Geno Smith threw in rhythm as he has all year. Coming out of the gates, on passes thrown 12 or more yards downfield, Smith went 4-for-5 for 81 yards. With that kind of start, it was easy to wonder if the deep-ball accuracy Smith displayed in the Baylor game (12-for-14 for 380 and five touchdowns) was going to be present once again. Then it all disappeared.
As the West Virginia defense continued to hemorrhage points at a ridiculous rate, Smith threw long-ball after long ball as if he wanted to get 14, 21, or even 28 points back on one great throw. For the first time this season, Smith failed to take what the defense was giving him (not that they were giving him much) and consistently forced the long-ball in hopes of igniting a comeback. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, Smith simply couldn’t connect. After starting out 4-for-5 on long pass attempts, Smith went 0 for his next 13.
One of the main culprits to Smith’s rough day was the pressure the Texas Tech front-four consistently got on the Mountaineers. Red Raiders coach Tommy Tuberville said the game plan was to press the West Virginia receivers on the outside and take their chances with Smith’s vertical accuracy. The plan worked. What greatly helped the Red Raiders execute the game plan was the pressure their defense was able to get without having to bring an extra defender, something the West Virginia offense generally exposes very well. Consider that in the first half alone, the Red Raiders were able to get pressure (force a scramble or get a hit on the quarterback) at least eight times when rushing just three or four defenders. The strong rush with seven- and eight-man coverages contributed greatly to Smith’s worst outing of the season.
While the passing game didn’t live up to WVU's lofty expectations, the running game was not much help either. A week after running 38 times for 230 yards and two touchdowns (not including sack yardage), the Mountaineers rushed for just 30 yards on 12 carries in the first half. While the Mountaineers' final rushing numbers eventually looked decent (36 carries for 133 yards), many of those yards were accumulated in the second half, when the Red Raiders defense was more than happy to keep the clock moving.
Much like the issues that have plagued Mike Leach’s offense this season, the Mountaineers were simply unable to sustain drives on Saturday. Coming off a two-week stretch in which the Mountaineers converted 20 of 32 third- and fourth-downs (62.5%), Texas Tech held them to 11-for-28 (39.2%). A few early stops seemed to get the Mountaineers’ buzz saw offense off kilt early, and they were even able to get back on track.
As for Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars, one can hope that a quarterback change can build on the momentum created in this past weekend’s loss to California. After quarterback Connor Halliday started the game 4-for-10 with two very poor throws that led to interceptions, senior Jeff Tuel took over and had one of the Cougars’ best performances of the season. In going 30-for-53 for 320 yards and two touchdowns, Tuel was finally able to bring some semblance of rhythm and continuity to the Cougars’ stale attack.
As mentioned in last week’s piece, Tuel really seems to enjoy throwing to the Cougars’ Marquess Wilson. On Saturday, the duo got off to a hot start before an injury to Wilson spoiled a potentially huge stat line. In Tuel’s first two drives, he hit Wilson three times on five targets for 47 yards. It’s too bad Wilson got hurt because it looked like he was on his way to a monster game with Tuel calling his number early and often.
The spread of receptions had to once again please Leach. A staple of Leach’s Air Raid attack, eight different receivers caught at least two balls, with Isiah Myers leading the charge with eight receptions for 108 yards. One play of note against Cal was when Leach stole a page out of Holgorsen’s playbooks and ran a fly-sweep shovel a five-yard gain. With little to lose at the point in the season, and considering his usual reluctance to run the ball, it will be interesting to see if Leach experiments a bit and utilizes a fly-sweep shovel package more often in the future.
It was another week and another failure for the Cougars when it came to their running attack and third-down conversions. Without harping on it too much, it should be noted that Cougars’ running backs had 12 carries for 66 yards (5.5 yards per carry), yet Leach once again had no intention of establishing the ground attack. As for third-down conversions, Washington State went just 5-for-16 (31.3%). The inability to run and the inability to convert on third downs have been two crippling constants for the Cougars this season. Luckily for Washington State, they can enjoy a much needed bye week and hopefully right the ship before facing Stanford in two weeks.
As for West Virginia, the Mountaineers have an opportunity to make up for last week’s dud in a big way as No. 4 Kansas State visits Morgantown on Saturday. A huge performance against Kansas State, and the Mountaineers will find themselves right back in the thick of things. Hopefully for their sake, the West Virginia defense might actually give its talented offense a chance in that one. With Washington State on a bye, next week’s piece will contrast the Mountaineers with the Oregon Ducks, who visit the Arizona State Sun Devils this Thursday. In a contrast to what Washington State has shown thus far, the Oregon Ducks will likely show how good a system can look when you actually have great athletes running it.