Orange Bowl: A shootout could be looming
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - West Virginia's offense averages 34.9 points this season. Clemson's averages 33.6. The Mountaineers average 459.6 yards. The Tigers average 440.6. WVU's pass efficiency rating is 148.2. Clemson's is 142.3
For two teams with stats so similar entering tonight's Orange Bowl here at Sun Life Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN), they sure do things differently.
Begin with the breadth of the offenses. WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen installed his offense on the first three days of spring practice, when he was still the offensive coordinator. He takes maybe two dozen plays into a game. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is not even close to the same.
"We've got about 65 percent of our offense in," he said.
The 23rd-ranked Mountaineers (9-3) pass for about 60 more yards per game than Clemson.
The 14th-ranked Tigers (10-3) run for about 40 more yards than WVU. Clemson's run-pass split is about 130 yards from even. WVU's is about 230 yards from even.
The Mountaineers are unapologetically immersed in a pass offense. Morris calls his offense a two-back, run-oriented system.
"When we're putting points on the board, it's because we do a great job of mixing up our run-pass," Morris said. "The games that we have to be lopsided one way or the other is when we're not at our best."
There is no greater difference, though, than the tempo with which the teams play. Morris is in his first season with the Tigers and has played fast from start to finish.
"He demands it," said All-America tight end Dwayne Allen. "In practice, in the walkthrough, in everything we do, he demands it. We have to control the tempo to control the game. It was evident in the ACC championship game. We tired those guys out and took over in the second half."
Holgorsen is in his first season with WVU and realized weeks ago he needed to use less and less of the desired tempo.
"I think we've played fast at times, but the tempo isn't at a consistently high level like we want," quarterback Geno Smith said. "Due to a number of reasons, we've had to slow down to make sure everybody is settled."
The Mountaineers ran 80 plays against Maryland and 87 against LSU and were so effective that a week later WVU suspected Bowling Green players were faking injuries to slow WVU's offense.
In the three games after losing at home to Louisville, WVU has snapped the ball 74, 66 and 61 times.
"It's about having unity and a mindset where you know what every other person is supposed to do so you can hurry up and run the next play," said center Joe Madsen. "We have to kind of sit down and figure out where other people are and what they do every play.
"You can't look at someone and say, 'OK, he does this when we call this play,' if you want to play with tempo. We've slowed down because of that aspect."
The Mountaineers still snap it about 72 times a game. Clemson gets about three more per game, but has been consistently fast and without many mistakes. In the 8-0 start, the Tigers, one of the country's least-penalized teams, had only eight turnovers and just three interceptions. They had 80 or more snaps four times, including 92 in a comeback win against Clemson.
"If we get to 80 snaps, we're moving at a high tempo," quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "Anywhere in that 75, 80 range and it's great. If we're getting 60 snaps a game, we're not moving fast enough and we're not as successful as we need to be."
Clemson was 6-0 this season when it ran 75 or more plays. The Tigers went 2-3 at the end of the season. In the losses, they had 65, 69 and 60 snaps. In the wins, they had 86 and 75, the latter in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech, when Clemson won the second half 28-0.
"I really feel like we're a team that when we get in a rhythm, we're hard to stop and I feel like that's proven," Boyd said. "Tempo is the key to this offense. We can't be walking slowly around the field. My job is to make sure everyone is focused on the tempo.
"When we get a big play, a 40- or 50-yard pass, we can't walk down there. We've got to run down there and get ready for the next play. There's no time to sit there and think, 'Hey, that was a great play.' We're all about the next play."
The Mountaineers haven't abandoned their tempo and they are still effective when they play fast, so long as it's not for an extended time. In the first 12 drives in the last game of the regular season, WVU had 214 yards and no points against South Florida. On the next two drives, that same offense had 140 yards and 10 points to win the game. The Mountaineers needed just 7 minutes, 42 seconds.
"There have been times it's been unstoppable for us and we've gone down the field with a great tempo, but it hasn't been consistent for us," said receiver Stedman Bailey. "We still do it and we're still good at it because I think when we do use tempo it takes the defense time to get set and adjust. By the time they do get adjusted, we're moving the ball down the field on them."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.