Mike Casazza: WVU's big plays, passes limited in opener
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The story you're about to read is one that under ordinary circumstances would not have been written.
As it is, though, West Virginia completed just 19 passes in Saturday's win against William & Mary. In Dana Holgorsen's previous 79 games as an offensive coordinator or a head coach in charge of calling plays, only twice were there fewer completions.
Paul Millard, the junior making his first start, finished with but 237 yards passing. Since 2007, Holgorsen's teams have topped that 72 times and matched it once.
And honestly, we shouldn't be having this discussion. The Mountaineers left an awful lot on the field, as many teams are prone to do in the opening game of the season, let alone one with a new starting quarterback, a backup promised snaps and so many new receivers.
"Paul did a good job distributing the ball," Holgorsen said. "We didn't make any plays. We caught a ball or two and fell down. That's what I saw."
This is not to say Millard was deprived of a 500-yard game, which would have been the ninth for Holgorsen in his career. Rather, it's a walking-and-falling illustration that WVU has much to work on before Saturday's 7 p.m. Fox game against No. 16 Oklahoma at Memorial Stadium.
The Mountaineers (1-0) didn't take many shots deep against a Tribe defense that put three safeties on top of a cautions game plan, but the receivers didn't really do a lot underneath that plan, either.
Take, as an example, Mario Alford. He was regarded among WVU's most exciting recruits, to say nothing of one of the nation's better junior college transfers. The inside receiver, slowed by an injury and the learning curve that was sharper for him because he arrived shortly before the start of camp, had a chance to make the play the offense needed in the second quarter.
Clint Trickett stepped back and quickly read Alford's route, the opening in the defense and Alford's pending encounter with a safety.
"That," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said, "could have been a huge play."
Could have been, because it was not. Trickett hit Alford in the hands before the ball hit the ground.
"The safety is 10 yards away and the ball gets there quick," Dawson said. "If he catches it and keeps his feet and he doesn't make the safety miss, we've got a problem. But he's one-on-one with the safety. The only way that safety makes the play is if Mario runs right into him, which he isn't going to do."
Maybe it was just that play, as opposed to that player. Freshman Daikiel Shorts, who snagged seven receptions in his first game, ran the same route on the same play at another point in the game.
He caught the pass and was tackled by his cleats.
"I don't know what I was thinking, to be honest," Shorts said. "I don't remember the play honestly, but watching the film, coach pointed it out. Now I know next time to stay up and I'll get in the end zone."
Millard took some of the blame for a game that saw WVU finish with one pass play of 20 yards or more. He overthrew Ivan McCartney when McCartney - who, by the way, is WVU's most accomplished receiver despite his uneven career - ran by two defensive backs on a deep post route. A yard shorter and McCartney gets his hands on it and possibly steps through the defenders for the final few yards before the end zone.
It was with the wind and deep down the field, though, so that was like water off Millard's back.
"You can't get too upset with yourself after plays like that, but you've got to put it out there and give yourself a guy a chance to make a play," he said.
What really bothered Millard was a miss on a much shorter throw in the fourth quarter. The Mountaineers had the ball at their 13-yard line, but called a screen pass that was set up to work. Freshman running back Wendell Smallwood moved to the left side, wiggled through the defense and hid behind two offensive linemen.
The pass was a bit behind him and hit a lunging linebacker in the hands.
If Millard puts some more touch on the ball and leads Smallwood just a little, it avoids the linebacker and keeps the play moving behind the blocking. Smallwood then has a rather sizable escort from left guard Marquis Lucas and center Tyler Orlosky. The hardest part of the play would be figuring out who blocks the safety deep and the linebacker to the right, the only defenders left unblocked on the play.
"If he caught that, you can't say he's going to run 80 yards for a touchdown, but the possibility was there," Milard said. "That's what the play was set up to be."
It would have been nice to get some practice doing some of those things in the space William & Mary afforded last week. Oklahoma grants no luxuries.
The Sooners have overhauled their defense and added speed to the scheme, which closes windows quickly. They also ask their defensive backs to play close to receivers and to do whatever they can to keep a receiver from running his route. Meanwhile, the rest of the Sooners seek to attack the passer to force quick throws, short gains and bad decisions.
The Mountaineers hope they get to tell a different story.
"They bring a lot of guys, a lot of different blitzes, probably like five guys every time," receiver K.J. Myers said. "They're going to test our receivers, which is perfect. They going to play it out there like, 'You've got to beat me.' They'll put their people in the box and blitz and try to get to the quarterback fast. They let the receivers know, 'You've got to beat me,' so we've got to beat them outside and inside."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.