WVU football: Special teams focus of practice for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- This was supposed to be the week when West Virginia and Oklahoma prepared to decide the Big 12 Conference championship at Mountaineer Field.
WVU, picked second to the 13th-ranked Sooners in July's preseason Big 12 poll, returned to practice Sunday following a fourth straight loss and worked on some simple special teams drills.
In the 55-34 loss to Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers allowed a kickoff return touchdown, let a ball bounce twice inside the 5-yard line and get through a group of players to go into the end zone for a touchback, had a Cowboys punt bounce and hit Tavon Austin for a turnover and then had a kickoff bounce and hit Andrew Buie for another turnover.
"We worked on fielding punts. We worked on the Peter call, when Tavon does this (waves his arms) and everyone runs away from the ball, which is what the Peter call is," Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
WVU also worked on kickoff returns. In addition to the turnover, where the squib kick bounded over Cody Clay and hit Buie as he tried to find it, WVU nearly lost another turnover on a similar play later in the game.
"We still have to make a decision to field it or to get out of the way and let someone else field it," Holgorsen said. "We worked with Tavon in the back and Stedman (Bailey) in the back. Here's a live ball. Field it. Run forward.
"Guys on the punt (coverage) team, if the ball gets inside the 5 and you see the ball, catch it and down it before it gets in the end zone."
Holgorsen, who wondered after the loss how coaching would have fixed the mistakes he saw in the game, said Tuesday that the performance was "embarrassing." A week earlier, WVU saw a bad snap on a punt lead to a fumble return touchdown against TCU, plus four missed field goals, including a blocked attempt when a make would have won the game in overtime.
"I sat here a week-and-a-half ago and thought we played really well on special teams, other than executing the snap and executing the kick, whether it was a kick or a punt," Holgorsen said. "So we worked hard at that all week, and if you look at the execution of the snap and the kick, they were really good (Saturday). Both snapping and punting were excellent.
"(Punter/kicker) Tyler responded and had probably the best day he's ever had here. John DePalma snapped and did his job running down the field with a tremendous amount of effort. With that said, everything else was bad. Everything else I said was good turned bad."
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A FRINGE website Monday cited a source in reporting senior cornerback Pat Miller had left the team. Holgorsen said at his press conference Tuesday Miller was still a part of the program.
"Hope he gets out there and practices hard and gets better," Holgorsen said. "We need him and a lot of other people to get better and hopefully take coaching better."
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THE MOUNTAINEERS have surged to No. 4 nationally in fourth down attempts and are No. 9 in conversions. In nine games, WVU is 15-for-29. The 51.72 percent conversion rate is just No. 63.
Every team above WVU in attempts has played 10 games. Baylor is the only team above WVU in conversions that has played nine games.
"I don't want to be in the habit of going for it on fourth down five or seven times a game," Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers have gone for it five times in one game and seven times in two games, including Saturday's loss. WVU was 5-for-5 in the win against Texas, which set a school record for fourth-down conversions in a game. WVU was 2-for-7 a week later against Texas Tech and 4-for-7 against Oklahoma State.
The Mountaineers lost those two games.
Holgorsen said he reviewed the decisions and approved of six and questioned one. The Mountaineers missed on a fourth-and-6 at their 39 in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys led 48-34 with 10:50 remaining and scored three plays later on a 21-yard run - the fifth scoring play covering 20 yards or more.
"I kind of questioned that one a little bit," he said. "I think at that point we were down 14 and they had just had an 80-yard scoring drive, so I made the decision to go for it. We didn't get it. Other than that, the other six, I'd do it again.
"A lot of them were in that 35-yard line area. I didn't feel good about the field goal because of the wind and didn't feel good about the punt because there's a chance (with a touchback) you only gain 15 yards. So we took our chances."
The Mountaineers converted fourth-and-13 with a 37-yard touchdown pass, fourth-and-1 with a 3-yard run, fourth-and-5 with a 5-yard pass and fourth-and-1 with an 8-yard pass. Incomplete passes spoiled a fourth-and-6 at the 39 that Holgorsen questioned and a fourth-and-goal at the 5 on WVU's final drive.
The one that bothered Holgorsen most was a run for no gain on a fourth-and-goal at the 2 in the second quarter. The Mountaineers trailed 21-7.
"Third-and-short, fourth-and-short, you've got to be able to get it," Holgorsen said. "If you're going to be successful offensively, you've got to be able to get those."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.