The unwelcoming reception to the Big XII continued once again for the West Virginia Mountaineers and their once-dynamic offense. In the Mountaineers 39-38 overtime loss to the TCU Horned Frogs, West Virginia’s offensive struggles continued. What once looked like an offense that may go down as one of the most prolific in the history of college football, now simply looks like a sputtering unit that the most vanilla defensive game plans can easily slow.
The trend started against Texas Tech a few weeks ago and hasn’t stopped since. In that contest, the Red Raiders consistently rushed just four defenders against Coach Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack and played sound, seven-man coverages behind the basic rush. The simple defensive game plan worked that day, and has worked every game since. While opponents haven’t necessarily been creating a ton of sacks against the Mountaineers, the four-man rushes have been able to put just enough pressure on quarterback Geno Smith to make him get rid of the ball in a timely manner.
Earlier in the season in the epic shootout against Baylor, the Bears chose to regularly rush just three defenders and drop eight-men into coverage. While the strategy flooded the underneath passing lanes with defenders, a lack of pressure allowed Mountaineers’ receivers to eventually break open and produce a ton of big plays. In stark contrast, the four-man rush employed in recent weeks has created enough pressure to force Smith to get rid of the ball quickly, thus eliminating fluky deep passes that were so prevalent against Baylor.
A three-man rush against the Mountaineers forces defenders to cover much too long. A blitz or pressure package exposes a defense to West Virginia’s dangerous run-after-catch threats. A vanilla, four-man rush seems to be a happy medium that is working for opponents. Texas Tech, Kansas State, and TCU have all welcomed the short, quick passes from Holgorsen’s attack and have trusted their defender’s ability to make tackles after the short catch. While the injury to wide receiver Stedman Bailey is partially to blame for West Virginia’s struggle, much more credit should be given to the simplified defenses to which the Mountaineers have yet to adapt. How dedicated have opponents been to the four-man rush against West Virginia? During regulation time this past Saturday, the Horned Frogs brought more than four pass rushers just one single time.
Against these bland defenses, it is Geno Smith’s inability to throw the long ball that has continuously hurt the Mountaineers’ offense. Out of Smith’s 50 pass attempts in regulation, he threw the ball at least 12 yards downfield nine times. On those nine attempts, Smith went 3-for-9 for 46 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But it should be noted that the touchdown could have easily resulted in a interception had wide receiver J.D. Woods not made the catch of the day for Smith, wrestling the ball away from a defender.
Smith’s inability to throw the ball downfield is really hurting West Virginia on third downs. Against TCU, the West Virginia offense threw the ball six times when faced with 3rd-and-9+. The distance of Smith’s pass attempts on those downs: minus-1, 2, 0, 0, 9, 37 yards. All six attempts were either incomplete or left the Mountaineers well short of a first-down. Two weeks after going 0-for-5 on longer pass attempts, it seems the bye week did little to cure Smith’s downfield woes. Is there anything Coach Holgorsen can do to get Smith’s deep accuracy turned around and get the offense rolling once again? Well, at least they still have Kansas on their schedule.
As for Coach Mike Leach, his Washington State Cougars followed up their best effort of the season against Stanford with an absolute stinker against Utah, losing 49-6. There really isn’t much to discuss about this over-matched squad other than Leach’s outlandish play-call breakdown and some very-telling statistics from the contest.
One week after having a pass/run play-call split of 77 passes to six runs, Leach followed it up this week by calling 62 passes versus five runs (including sacks and scrambles as pass play-calls). In total, since coming off their bye two weeks ago, Leach has called 139 passes and 11 runs. That is defensible, right? I mean, who would want a semi-balanced attack when your squad is a potent 2-7?
While this season is obviously a transition year for the Washington State program, it is difficult to not view the season as a bit of a disappointment. Coming off a four-win season where pieces for a strong passing attack seemed to be in place for the renowned passing guru, Wazzu's season has been defined by questionable play-calling, poor execution, and the inability to turn yardage into points. While the overall passing numbers look fine (324.2 yards per game), many of those yards have come in garbage time when contests were well out of hand. Last weekend against Utah, it was the same old story.
Discounting the Cougars’ final possession, a drive that resulted in their only score of the day on the game’s final play, the offense produced just 186 yards and zero points. On third- and fourth-downs, the Cougars went a combined 2-for-17. Including sack yardage, Washington State rushed for a grand total of -4 yards, currently leaving them 124th (out of 124 teams) in the nation in rushing yards per game. Even more baffling, Saturday’s futile efforts on the ground and in protecting the quarterback meant the Cougars have produced negative rushing yard totals in three of their past five contests! Against Utah, Washington State’s refusal/inability to run the ball, as well as its failure to convert first downs, resulted in lopsided time of possession. Utah held the ball for 37:39, while the Cougars had it for just 22:21. One word: ugly.
Three months ago, I can’t imagine fans for either West Virginia or Washington State thought this is where they would currently find themselves. Coming off an Orange Bowl victory where the Mountaineers put up 70 points in a whacking of Clemson, West Virginia returned the core of its dynamic offense and looked to barnstorm the wide-open Big XII. Presently owners of three consecutive losses and a sputtering offense, the Mountaineers look like a typical middle-of-the-pack Big XII squad.
As for Leach, it is hard to imagine this is what Washington State had in mind when they handed him $2.25 million a year. As mentioned before, this is a transition year for the Cougars, and Leach should be given slack until he gets his own recruits into Pullman. Having said that, there have still been some embarrassing losses this season (see: Colorado and Utah) that have seem to have to rubbed a bit of the shine off Leach’s hiring. When the only wins of the season are a four-point win over Eastern Washington and a eight-point win over a 2-8 UNLV, it is difficult to find the silver lining.
The question to ask is, what does the future hold for each of these two squads? Will West Virginia be able to overcome the losses of Geno Smith and Tavon Austin this off-season? Will the Mountaineers be able to field a defense capable of slowing opponents in the Big XII? Will Mike Leach be able to recruit to Pullman? Is it really a talent issue, or are defenses slowly starting to figure out his Air Raid attack? The beauty of college football is that you never really know what to expect from week to week. As this season has unfolded, both West Virginia and Washington State have been perfect examples of the volatility of the sport.