WVU football: Mountaineers want option back in the offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Jock Sanders chooses his words as carefully as he chooses a lane during a punt return.
The topic is injecting more option offense and runs for quarterback Geno Smith into West Virginia's offense and the senior receiver is as excited as he is for a hook-and-lateral in the red zone.
The Mountaineers really want to bring back the option.
"That's one thing that was - I'm not going to say missing, but it was a part of the game that could have helped us out early in the year," said Sanders, who has 46 receptions for just 413 yards and two touchdowns this season. "Running Geno more, his foot wasn't always healthy. That's why we tried to limit it.
"Now it's healthy and it's been healthy the whole year, but we were trying to limit him because with his foot, we didn't want to aggravate anything. Now, it's give or take and we're putting him out there and telling him to make the proper reads and go with it. Now he's able to run and it gives us the extra dimension."
Smith is coming off his most active and effective game as a runner. He carried 15 times for 64 yards - career-highs - and had a personal-best 29-yard run early in the loss to Connecticut that caught the Huskies by surprise.
Not coincidentally, there was extra room for other runners and the Mountaineers finished with a season-high 254 ground yards.
The possibilities are obvious and to no one more than Saturday's opponent. The Mountaineers (5-3, 1-2 Big East) play host to Cincinnati (3-5, 1-2) at noon at Mountaineer Field and the Bearcats suddenly realize WVU has a new way to utilize its skill and speed on offense.
"It adds another dimension, adds another weapon," said Cincinnati Coach Butch Jones, who was the WVU receivers coach in 2005-06. "It's all about being gap sound on defense. You have to be aware and cognizant of where the quarterback is on every snap.
"The thing about Geno, too, is he's an extremely intelligent player. He can get himself out of trouble and extend plays with his legs. He's got a strong, accurate arm. Now, all of a sudden, you add a running dimension and couple that with all the other talented players they have and it makes it extremely difficult to defend."
Cincinnati's defense has had trouble stopping the pass and preventing scores, but is good against the run. The Bearcats rank No. 15 nationally and allow just 110.13 yards per game. WVU is No. 54 in rushing offense (156.75).
WVU hopes an increased blend of quarterback runs and option plays involving Smith, Sanders, running back Noel Devine and fullback Ryan Clarke can ignite the offense.
"It's best for the team," Smith said. "Teams are playing us different than they played us in the past and they understand our first option is not to run. They want to take away some things with Noel. Now it's my job to relieve some of the pressure off him and make the defense respect me, as well."
The emergence of the option has been a process for Smith and the Mountaineers. He broke a bone in his left foot in January. WVU didn't ask him to do a lot of option or running plays in spring and fall practice, due in part to the recovery, but also the direction his right arm was going to lead the offense in a different manner than predecessors Patrick White and Jarrett Brown.
Offensive struggles arrived against South Florida and Syracuse before a game against a UConn defense that last year blitzed WVU throughout the entire first half. The Mountaineers thought quarterback runs would counter a similar strategy in the rematch.
"We're an option offense," offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. "The runs aren't predetermined runs. They're for him to make a read. When you've got a guy like Noel, the defense tends to run to him.
"It's been an uphill battle with a first-year starting quarterback and a fourth-year starting running back. The defense will force a young quarterback to make enough plays to beat the opponent."
The Mountaineers felt they needed to make some changes. Smith's hot start to the season cooled off as defenses began to guard the pass. His yards-per-completion dipped because he was hurried and had to make quicker throws on shorter routes. The average went from 18.3 in the 49-10 victory against UNLV to 9.1 against USF and 8.9 against the Orange.
"When they see you run your quarterback, a la the Patrick White days, it's very, very difficult to blitz the way people do with these zone blitzes," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said. "They'll still blitz you because one guy still has the quarterback.
"When I coached defense, I always had somebody who had the quarterback. You don't blitz without having him. But for the most part, when you blitz and load up and cover the wideouts, one guy is left free.
"People couldn't do that to us when we had Patrick. People didn't do that as much when we had Jarrett because he'd break the pocket and run. That's the thing Geno has to do a little more this week. If that baby's not clear, tuck it and get it. If you have to slide, slide. If you have to lower your shoulder, do what you have to do, but try not to get whacked too hard."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.