WVU has to exploit blitzes to succeed
MORGANTOWN - Reviewing a football game, regardless of the outcome, and going over the good and the bad on videotape is nothing new at West Virginia.
What was odd about what the Mountaineers did following last Friday's 49-23 loss at Syracuse, as painful as the memories and as stinging as the lessons were, was the point Coach Dana Holgorsen tried so hard to make.
It was the constant blitzing that beat No. 25 WVU, but it was the constant blitzing that should have helped the Mountaineers win.
"We sat in here as an offense and we went through every play and we said, 'Here's how you attack it,'" Holgorsen said. "If a few guys would have done that, then we could have easily scored more than 49 points and won the game, but we didn't do that. We need to be able to handle it better. I've been on teams that can handle it."
Holgorsen wasn't interested in how the Mountaineers scored but 23 points or threw two interceptions or how they stayed on the field for barely 24 minutes in a 60-minute game, but focused instead on how the team that scored three touchdowns didn't score seven.
Blitzing, Holgorsen said, is supposed to help his offense more than the Orange hurt it.
"It's nothing new," he said "Teams have been doing it for a long, long time. Blitzing 75 percent of the time is a lot and I haven't faced that personally, but I've been on a lot of teams that handle blitzes better and you make them pay for it.
"That's our goal offensively. We want them to blitz because that means that there's less space behind them at the line of scrimmage. If we identify it and do a good job of handling it, we could have easily scored more than 49 points."
It's a timely teaching point for WVU (5-2, 1-1 Big East). Saturday's game at Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) is against a defense that is No. 6 nationally in sacks per game, leads the country in forced turnovers (25) and is tied for the lead in interceptions (15).
The 3:30 p.m. game at High Point Solutions Stadium is an ABC regional telecast to 15 percent of the nation.
"It's something we've known all along," WVU quarterback Geno Smith said. "Throughout the season, we've yet to put together a clean game. We have way too many mistakes at this point, but it's something we continue to learn.
"That was our seventh game in the offense and I think everyone is trying their hardest to understand what we have to do. Some guys' learning curves are different than others, but it's something where we need to all get on the same page so we can become that explosive offense."
Smith subjected himself to even more film to understand exactly what happened. Not only did Syracuse blitz a lot, but the attacks varied. Holgorsen said 16 of the first 24 blitzes were different.
Smith struggled with the Orange for a second straight season and finished 24-for-41 for 338 yards and two touchdowns, but also two interceptions. He was sacked four times and hit on many other plays.
Quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said he watched the film with Smith four or five more times. They studied the looks, many of which they'd never seen, and went over Smith's decisions, specifically when he checked to a different play. They paid close attention to when he needed to check from a pass to a run or a run to a screen.
"The whole time it was, 'What do we do when they do this? When they do that?'" Spavital said. "We went through and analyzed every single play and did the best we can do to get him thinking in the right direction."
One thing Holgorsen highlighted was WVU's inability to beat the defense when the Orange jammed and bumped receivers at the line of scrimmage. Smith threw a lot of fade patterns - quick throws lobbed over the defense to a in the defensive backfield - and had almost no success. One completion went to Stedman Bailey, when he timed his route perfectly and ran under the pass and kept the defense behind him for a 65-yard touchdown.
Holgorsen was disappointed it didn't happen more often.
"We were probably 1 out of 10," Holgorsen said. "Those 10 would have been touchdowns, too. If you're only hitting one out of 10, that's not very good."
If nothing else, Holgorsen's obscure, though explained opinion of the game maintained the confidence the offenses possesses and must play with in a game. The Mountaineers are No. 5 in passing offense and No. 13 in total offense. They still had more than 400 yards against Syracuse, despite the issues.
Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano said WVU has "by far the best skill we've faced. Not even close. They have four wide receivers that are as good as we've played." The Mountaineers still believe they're dangerous.
"We all have confidence," Smith said.
"We're talented. I believe we have one of the most talented groups of receivers out there and one of the most talented teams out there. We have to focus and play with confidence and we'll be fine."
WVU players and coaches said Tuesday's practice was the best in recent memory and one of the best of the season.
"No one is doing anything to feed the negativity," Smith said. "I've seen guys out there fighting to get better and encouraging teammates to get better. That's a big plus for us."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.