WVU football: Mountaineers look to rediscover deep pass
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Apart from the win-loss record, life in the Big 12 Conference has gone very much like West Virginia expected.
The offense has delivered the Mountaineers a higher profile and the defense - well, they knew there would be games like the past two.
WVU believed it would fit in the Big 12 because Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense could get along with everyone else in the neighborhood. It also knew the defense would struggle like others tend to do against Big 12 pass offenses.
There's been one surprise, though. WVU's passing offense has been slowed by those supposedly susceptible defenses. The Mountaineers have lacked the vertical pass that defined them early in the season.
"I believe you've got to at least attempt to throw it down the field a handful of times every game," said quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. "When I was (a graduate assistant) at Tulsa, we had a motto - we were going to take at least 10 shots a game.
"Here with Dana, it depends on the flow of the game, but we believe we have to take our shots seven or eight times and throw it vertical down the field to get the cornerbacks running and get them to spread the field a little more."
The 23rd-ranked Mountaineers (5-2, 2-2 Big 12) look to rediscover the deep pass in Saturday's game (3 p.m., Fox) against TCU (5-3, 2-3). WVU was averaging 9.42 yards per attempt and 11.8 yards per completion when it started 5-0 and had the country's second-best passing offense.
Now No. 6 in passing offense, the Mountaineers have seen their averages drop to 8.05 yards per attempt and 11 yards per completion. They had 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more in the first four games. They had five in the past three.
Just one, a 38-yard pass from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin that set up the first touchdown against Texas Tech, was on a vertical pass down the field.
"It is a combination of a lot of things," Holgorsen said. "It's not the plays that we were calling. We called plays that would have gotten the ball down the field some. Whether we broke down up front, or Geno got his eyes away from it, we didn't do a good job of getting it down the field."
Whatever the case, the Mountaineers haven't attempted too many in the three games. They tried not to go deep against Texas, they struggled with a number of attempts against Texas Tech and they took only a few chances against Kansas State.
Holgorsen said the problem starts up front and that WVU needs to protect Smith better and give the receivers more time to get open downfield. The Mountaineers tried to work around that against Texas and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, who still made their way to Smith despite WVU's designs.
"We knew who those guys were - they're pretty good coming off the edge," Holgorsen said. "We were conscious of that and we didn't do (deep passes) very much, but we were successful in what we were doing."
Smith was 25-for-35 for 268 yards and four touchdowns. The challenge was much different a week later against Texas Tech, which didn't blitz nearly as often as Texas, but caused problems by playing tight coverage and forcing Smith to be very sharp.
"Geno was not accurate down the field," Holgorsen said. "We went down the field six or eight times and we weren't successful, which was the main reason they were successful."
The Red Raiders set out to stop WVU's run and quick pass games and force long yardage situations on second and third down.
"They were begging us to throw it deep, but we didn't do a very good job with it," Spavital said. "We had opportunities. They never took it away from us. It comes down to a mindset. The kids have to realize when they get man-to-man, they've got to get open."
Smith finished 29-for-55 for 275 yards and a touchdown and then was part of the lowest passing output any Holgorsen team has ever had in his 13 seasons as a Division I coach. Kansas State limited WVU to just 155 yards passing and Smith was only 21-for-32 for 143 yards, one touchdown and his first two interceptions of the season.
The Wildcats did a bit of what both Texas and Texas Tech did. They pressured Smith and covered receivers, though with a different style as both safeties stayed deep. WVU again could not counter.
"Their pass rush was pretty good," Holgorsen said. "They were rotating a lot of guys and they were athletic. There wasn't a specific guy we were scared of, just a collection of them. They did a good job of getting to us, but their corner coverage was off. The coverage was off and we should have done a better job of completing the ball underneath than we did."
TCU has allowed 19 pass plays of 25 yards or more and five came in Saturday's 36-14 loss to Oklahoma State. Kansas and Iowa State, the conference's worst passing offenses, had success with the Jayhawks passing for 303 yards and the Cyclones getting 15.2 yards per attempt and four touchdowns. TCU's last three opponents - Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State - have each passed for 300 yards and averaged 15.4 yards per completion.
"They do a mixture of what we've seen from Kansas State, which kind of mixes it up, and Texas Tech, which will come out and man you up," Spavital said. "We need to get in a rhythm because we're most dangerous when we're moving the ball, but we need to get to the point where we're throwing down the field again and see if we can make something happen there."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.