Okay, so quarterback Geno Smith didn’t throw for another 600+ yards this week against the Texas Longhorns. But you know what? West Virginia came out of Austin looking even more dangerous than they did after putting up 70 points on Baylor a week ago.
The versatility of the Mountaineers’ offense is simply astounding. Early in the season, the discussion often revolved around West Virginia’s short, high-percentage passing game that relied heavily on the run-after-catch abilities of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, two of the most dynamic receivers in the nation. While those qualities are still present, the offense has evolved into much more. After last week’s 70-point onslaught, the discussion quickly turned to Smith and his newly minted vertical passing game. The performance made you wonder whether Coach Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid offense would be able to reach unforeseen levels if this newly-found effectiveness of the deep-ball remained a constant.
Now, after West Virginia’s latest victory, in which they put up 48 points on the road against the No. 11 Texas Longhorns, the discussion focuses on a downhill, power running game that simply overwhelmed Texas down the stretch. Credit Holgorsen for having the foresight to lean on his running game throughout the contest. Knowing Texas could match-up athletically on the outside better than any of his previous four opponents, Holgorsen came out and used his Pistol-formation the way it has traditionally been utilized: for running the ball downhill.
Despite running primarily out the Pistol formation this season, there has been no question that the primary identity of the Mountaineers has been their passing attack. But in this contest, West Virginia used the Pistol to run through the Longhorns like old Nevada teams used to run through overwhelmed WAC opponents. Not including the four sacks of Smith, West Virginia ran the ball 38 times for 230 yards and two touchdowns. That is an average of over six yards per carry against a defense littered with four- and five-star athletes.
The item that stood out most about West Virginia’s offense was the heavy usage of two new formations. First, in a break from early-season tendencies, the Mountaineers came out with Smith under center using three receivers and an off-set I-formation backfield twelve times. Of the twelve times they lined up in this formation, they ran the ball 10 times for 42 yards and two touchdowns. By forcing Texas’ linebacker/nickel back to remove from the box to cover the slot receiver, the Mountaineers consistently found success running a weak lead-zone play at the Longhorns’ six-man box.
The other formation the Mountaineers used heavily for the first time this season was an inverted variation of their traditional Pistol-formation, one where their running back lined up where the fullback generally does and vice versa. This formation presented a plethora of options for Holgorsen to utilize, and he didn’t disappoint. When West Virginia lined up in the inverted Pistol, the offense ran stretches, play-actions, screens, and reverses. The first touchdown pass of the game came from the inverted Pistol-formation when Smith hit Bailey on a slant route after faking a stretch play to running back Andrew Buie (who had just broken off a 30-yard run on the previous play). As if defensive coordinators didn’t have enough to worry about before this week, Holgorsen has now added two additional, diverse formations from which his offense now has proven successful. For a team that leans so much on its offense, West Virginia's ability to consistently come up with new ways to light up the scoreboard is going to be vital to their future success.
On the other side of the United States, it is hard not to feel bad for Mike Leach. Comforted by offenses he knew could consistently put up big numbers during his tenure at Texas Tech, Leach currently finds himself with a bare cupboard. That lack of talent continues to hinder Leach’s ability to live up to his well-earned reputation as an offensive mastermind.
On Saturday against a well-coached, stingy Oregon State defense, Washington State’s offense was on the field for just 41 offensive snaps (not including punts and field goal attempts). For an offense that came into the game avenging 72.2 snaps per game, it was a huge step in the wrong direction. The two obvious culprits for the step backwards were turnovers and the lack of third-down success. Against the Beavers, Washington State turned the ball over five times, including four interceptions and one fumble lost.
When the Cougars did hang on to the ball, they simply could not move the chains. For the game, Washington State went just 2-for-10 on third-downs was 0-for-1 on fourth-downs. It goes without saying that if you can’t make the plays to sustain drives, it is very difficult to consistently put up points.
One positive takeaway from the game is that the Cougars seem to be spreading the ball around like Leach prefers from his offense. On Saturday, a total seven players had catches, with five of those players catching at least three balls. It will be interesting to see if the even spread of the catches continues going forward, or if Cougars’ quarterbacks lock back into their preferred targets.
One interesting game note is that the preseason All-American candidate Marquess Wilson only saw one target in the first half until backup quarterback Jeff Tuel came on for the last drive. Throughout the game, starting quarterback Connor Halliday only targeted Wilson one time in his twenty total pass attempts, whereas Tuel targeted him five times in seventeen attempts. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Wilson’s targets and production vary depending which quarterback is at the helm.
Once again, the Cougars running game was non-existent. Seeing as the passing game continuously coughed the ball up against the Beavers, it is strange that Leach didn’t try the running game a bit more. Oh wait, we’re talking about Mike Leach. Abandoning the running game is what Leach does. Even while the Cougars were still in the game late, Leach simply refused to run the ball enough, even though the ground game was having a bit of success. In the game, two running backs combined for nine carries and 40 yards. On an afternoon in which the passing game was doing little to contribute to the cause, it is puzzling Leach didn’t at least try something else. To his credit, though, it is difficult to try too many different things when your offense is only on the field for 41 snaps.
Overall, both West Virginia and Washington State find themselves in a stretch of difficult opponents. As West Virginia’s defense continues to give up numbers almost as gaudy as what its offense is gaining, the Mountaineers' offense must remain near-perfect as they face six more quality opponents in a row. For Washington State, hopefully Coach Mike Leach can reach into his bag of tricks and find a way sneak out a win or two using smoke and mirrors. Needless to say, the beginning portion of this season has gone almost perfect for one of the coaches, while the other simply needs to salvage what he can.