Rock bottom: West Virginia's offensive woes

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Not even two years removed from the "West Virginia scored again!" Orange Bowl and the anointment of Dana Holgorsen as Chief Air Raid Genius, his Mountaineers presented Charlie Weis and the Kansas Jayhawks their first Big 12 win in three years.

Kansas is 101st in the F/+ rankings, with the 92nd ranked rushing defense in the country (192.6 yards per game), yet the Mountaineers only managed 144 yards on 32 attempts. A bowl game isn’t in the cards any longer for this 4-7 squad that was shut out against Maryland and only managed seven points against Oklahoma.

So what seems to be the issue? West Virginia fans have many theories:

  1. A lack of motivation.
  2. The move to the Big 12 and greater talent level.
  3. Injuries -- 17 total against Kansas, including nine starters.
  4. The transience of the coaching staff (particularly assistants) who leave for "better" opportunities or because of a quick trigger finger (Bill Stewart).
  5. Poor recruiting, particularly by Bill Stewart, who "left the cupboard bare." Only 23 of 45 recruited players ended up enrolling under Stewart. This is felt the worst on the offensive line.
  6. Poor coaching. Some argue that while Dana is an Xs and Os genius, he "simply can’t coach" and doesn’t adjust his play calling to on-field results.

Of the six most common theories, the last is the most interesting to me, especially because West Virginia only managed one touchdown in non-garbage time against Kansas. If this hypothesis is true, then we’d expect play calling to have a couple of common traits: (1) The inability to vary play calling even after previous drives fail, (2) ineffective constraint plays or over-reliance on base plays, or (3) insufficient adjustments, particularly after halftime.

To test this, I charted the WVU-Kansas game with an eye for drive-to-drive adjustments, new wrinkles, and constraint plays. While it’s just a one-game snapshot of the West Virginia offense at rock bottom, it hopefully illustrates some of Dana and Dawson’s tendencies.

First, West Virginia opened almost entirely focused on the horizontal pass game. This was likely to give backup quarterback Paul Millard some easier throws on the road and in a windy stadium. The problem here is an over-reliance on short passes without any vertical threat or inside running game to constrain defensive backs that have checks to quickly trigger on short passes.

Below is an example of this tendency. Kansas brings an extra defender off the edge in a blitz, theoretically leaving the center of the field and the slot receiver uncovered. The line run blocks, indicating that it is likely a packaged play with the possibility of a handoff to Charles Sims. Millard wisely made the decision post-snap to toss the screen as he saw the blitz in his face. However, the Kansas safety was coached to quickly trigger on the slot receiver if he saw the slot stop at the line of scrimmage. Without an effective downfield threat, defenders can cheat on short pass plays with impunity.

Second, and beginning in earnest with the Mountaineers’ third possession, they attempt to establish the inside base run game. Here, out of the strong pistol, Millard has the option to either hand off on an inside zone run or throw to the boundary receiver on a crossing pattern. However, the backside defensive end (unblocked) and a linebacker (also unblocked) both are able to drag Sims down in the backfield. The high snap probably didn’t help by eliminating Millard’s ability to make the post-snap decision to pass at single coverage.

The lack of inside running or downfield passing meant that, apart from the first and last two drives of the game, the Mountaineers had no effective base plays off of which they could build big-play constraints. Holgorsen and Dawson attempted to reassert the ground game in the second half, but poor line play and the inability of the offense to punish cheating defenders rendered this strategy almost dead on arrival. Short gains on first down led to repeated second-and-long and third-and-long situations.

Finally, on these passing downs, the line was unable to sustain its blocks because Kansas could choose to either blitz an additional defender or drop eight into zone. West Virginia was unable to exploit the holes vacated by blitzed defenders.

Here, Holgorsen uses one of his staples -- the early motion of the running back to the sideline that provides keys on the defense’s alignment. If the defenders don't respond to the motion (they don’t here, keeping the outside linebacker stationary and feigning blitz), then the quarterback will throw a screen to the running back. However, Millard looks downfield instead of at the running back and is sacked because the defenders have no fear of the downfield passing game.

Just based on this game alone, Holgorsen and Dawson alone were not the problem. The offense, by packaging concepts together and allowing the quarterback to make post-snap reads, allowed for variation in run/pass/screen throughout the game, but none of these concepts were effective behind a porous line and inconsistent quarterback reads. Kansas cheated on short passes and inside runs without fear of being exploited in the deep pass game, but it wasn’t because of a lack of trying. As the last clip demonstrates, those attempts often ended in negative yardage plays.

As of right now, I believe it would be a mistake to overhaul the offensive staff. An accumulation of lackluster recruiting, graduated players, and injuries have depleted West Virginia’s roster. The current mishmash of players lacks consistency more than anything else, making Holgorsen’s job a difficult one. That said, he must work on the run game for the rest of the season and the off season in order to overcome his depth issues.

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