WVU football: Mountaineers to take closer look at offense during off week
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia University's defense will be picked apart during the off week, though for a change by the coaches and not the opposition, as has been the case the preceding four weeks in the Big 12.
It is a group that is near the bottom of the national rankings in total defense (No. 113 of 120), scoring defense (No. 115) and passing defense (No. 120) and has nearly exhausted the supply of adjectives to describe it and answers to fix it.
It is not the lone culprit in a two-game losing streak.
The Mountaineers, who are improbably ranked No. 25 by the Associated Press and No. 22 by the coaches despite being outscored 104-28 the past two weeks, have a new question to consider: What happened to the offense?
"I don't know that I have the answer," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "If I did, I would have answered it in the game."
WVU (5-2, 2-2 Big 12) managed just 243 yards of offense in Saturday's 55-14 loss to No. 4 Kansas State (7-0, 4-0), the worst total in Coach Dana Holgorsen's 20 games and the second-lowest total since the 13-9 loss to Pitt in 2007 that kept the Mountaineers from playing for the national championship.
The 155 yards passing combined between Geno Smith and Paul Millard was by far the fewest for a Holgorsen team since he began his Division I coaching career as an assistant at Texas Tech in 2000.
"We've reached our low," said Smith, who was sacked four times, threw his first two interceptions of the season and passed for just 143 yards, the third-lowest total of his career as a starter. "This is about as low as it gets. I've never had to deal with adversity of this magnitude. I've never lost two games in this manner."
The offense that had been averaging 52 points and 578 yards when it was 5-0, ranked No. 5 and riding a nine-game winning streak, has managed just three touchdowns since. That had not happened across two games since struggles against Syracuse and at Connecticut in 2010, the last time WVU had back-to-back losses.
WVU has only 651 yards of offense the past two games, fewer than what it totaled in separate games against Marshall and Baylor this season and the lowest two-game total since games at Pitt and Louisville in November, 2010.
"I didn't forget how to coach offense," Holgorsen said. "The schemes are the same and they've been successful for a long time."
The Mountaineers have explanations they are careful not to label excuses. They remain without running back Shawne Alston, who hasn't started since the second week of the season and played just a few snaps the following week before vanishing. Receiver Stedman Bailey was limited against Kansas State by a bad ankle and caught four passes. WVU also benched starting right tackle Pat Eger in favor of Nick Kindler, though that didn't solve continued issues in run and pass blocking.
WVU has also played better defenses the past two weeks after facing two of the nation's worst in Baylor (No. 120) and Texas (No. 107). Yet Texas Tech (No. 7) and Kansas State (No. 23) didn't follow the same formula to shut down WVU.
"They were so different schematically," Dawson said. "Texas Tech played a lot of man. Kansas State played a lot of zone. I don't see any similarities in what either team did defensively, other than both teams tackled well."
The problems are mostly WVU's. The defense isn't helping the offense and has allowed 16 scores and forced two punts in 21 possessions the past two games.
Kansas State had a field goal and seven touchdowns in its first eight drives.
"We can choose not to fall behind if we want to," Dawson said. "We can choose to go out there and answer them, if we want to. Every time they score or punt, we get the ball and we can choose our own destiny."
The offense hasn't gotten the ball very often or in very good situations, but hasn't done much with possession, either. It had 20 plays and 74 yards in the first half Saturday and trailed 31-7 after being down 35-7 at the half against Texas Tech.
"We can't worry about anything that's going on with the defense," Smith said. "We have to worry about ourselves, first things first, and make sure we remain focused and not caught up on the scoreboard so we're not pressing and not trying to get it all back with one play."
The Mountaineers admit they have pressed and have tried to do too much, in part because of the deficits, but also because they haven't been able to build any rhythm or momentum. In the past two games, they've had 20 first-down plays either lose yardage or gain no yards, which has compromised the play calls on second and third down. WVU was 17-for-35 on third down, 2-for-8 on fourth down and has punted eight times.
"The way to get in a rhythm is to get first downs and we have to do a good job being very, very effective early in the game," Dawson said. "We're not starting fast right now, so we've got to find ways to create a comfort level and create some confidence because we don't have either of those right now."
Eventually, the struggles and the deficits combine and WVU's problems are compounded. Dawson said the offense has "a little internal problem, panic, or whatever," that has to disappear.
"We can't look at the scoreboard," Dawson said. "We've got to play every drive like it's 0-0. Do I think we're pressing? Yea, I think we are. We're going to try and talk the guys down from that. It's a mindset, really. It's a confidence thing and in my opinion, we have to get our confidence back.
"How do we do that? We have to go back to work and do what we do to have success and then build our confidence back off of that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1141. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.