LSU will see a different West Virginia University team
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- While this is the sixth consecutive season West Virginia plays a Southeastern Conference team, this Mountaineers' squad might be significantly different than the previous five.
No. 22 WVU visits No. 15 LSU for Saturday's 9 p.m. ESPN2 game at Tigers Stadium, but this Mountaineer team won't look quite the same as some of its recent predecessors that used to slice through SEC opponents.
"I think they'll see we still try to do some of the same stuff," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said. "We do run the zone (read). We run the belly (option) a little bit. We still try to play fast.
"We didn't have tight ends before.
"We never had a tight end who caught passes. We didn't have any bigger backs. Now we have that and we're more well-rounded."
The Mountaineers are also still blessed with fast players and still play most of the game out of the shotgun. Fundamentally speaking, they still prefer to get their quickest and most talented players free in open spaces.
How it happens, however, is not the same.
"We're probably more multiple," Stewart said, "but that's in the eye of the beholder."
Behold what the SEC has seen from WVU in recent years: The offense introduced itself to the league in the 2006 Sugar Bowl with 382 yard rushing against Georgia and three touchdowns by Steve Slaton - two covering 52 yards each.
Those Mountaineers would run through Mississippi State with the reads and the options from Slaton and quarterback Pat White and with Darius Reynaud taking short passes and turning them into scores in 2006-07.
The coaching change followed the 2007 season and things began to shift in a new direction as offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen planted the seeds for an offense that is beginning to blossom this year.
WVU trailed Auburn 17-3 in 2008 before WVU went with three and four wide receivers and let White and Noel Devine zip through the space. Devine had 207 yards and a touchdown as part of 31 unanswered points in a 34-17 win, but White also hit slant routes again and again for 174 yards and three scores.
Last season Devine helped the Mountaineers take a 14-0 lead early at Auburn, but Jarrett Brown ended up throwing 32 passes, mostly because the lead vanished and WVU had to come back, due in part to a few of his four interceptions.
Auburn won 41-30.
Now WVU (3-0) has an offense that is more effective when it passes the ball. Passes account for seven of the team's 10 touchdowns and 59.8 percent of the total offense. Six of quarterback Geno Smith's seven touchdowns have been inside the red zone and covered 4, 17, 5, 6, 5 and 5 yards.
Those used to be gimmes for Slaton, White and fullback Owen Schmitt.
The Mountaineers had 2,423 yards rushing and 2,484 passing last season. They ran for 2,729 and threw for 1,856 in 2008, and the splits during Rich Rodriguez's final season as head coach in 2007 were 3,864 rushing to 2,067 passing.
The Mountaineers still run more frequently - 136 attempts to 107 passes - and Devine already has 73 carries and 354 yards, which is more than his 51 for 320 through last season's first three games.
That serves a larger purpose.
"We're still a run-first football team," Mullen said. "The pass gets past because they've got to stop No. 7. If you don't have No. 7, you don't get to pass like we pass. It's not like we're getting to where we can say, 'We're going to be a throwing team,' and we do it."
Brown completed 61 passes to five receivers, two tight ends and one running back in the first three games last season. Four different players had a touchdown. Slot receiver Jock Sanders led the way with 29 receptions and Brad Starks had nine.
Smith has spread his 71 completions among eight players as well but done so more evenly. Wide receiver Tavon Austin has a team-high 21 receptions. Sanders has 19 and Devine 13. Five players have caught a touchdown.
"For us, we have to be that way because we have good wideouts and we have good tailbacks," Mullen said. "We don't want to freeze anybody out. That's what helps us win games. Those aren't selfish reasons. Those are how-we-win reasons. We need a quarterback who facilitates the ball around the field and gets the right guys the ball at the right time"
Smith, the sophomore from Miramar, Fla., has been a difference in determining the new direction. He's completing 70.3 percent of his passes, the 10th-best rate in the country, and is No. 21 in passing efficiency.
Brown was completing 68.5 percent of his passes through the first three games last season, but had also five touchdowns and interceptions.
LSU (3-0) is No. 25 in total defense, but has allowed success through the air. The Tigers are No. 94 in passing efficiency defense and No. 62 in pass defense (199.33 yards per game). North Carolina passed for 412 and three touchdowns in the season opener, but LSU did intercept five passes at home last week against Mississippi State.
"I've never not felt comfortable opening the playbook for him," Mullen said. "I've not handcuffed him in any one game so far. He tries to take what the defense gives us. Whether Geno checks for us or plays fast, I've never not felt comfortable with Geno and his command of our playbook."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.