WVU football: Offense still seeking an identity
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Perhaps these are the growing pains that were to be expected as West Virginia ventured into being a running football team again.
Or maybe it was wrong to expect a dramatic change at a place that's been so smitten with the pass in games, practices and recruiting for almost three years.
Nevertheless, the Mountaineers began the season certain they could run the ball with so much depth and talent at running back and a new offensive line coach who was going to cultivate a physical quality that would make the difference.
It hasn't worked.
"I don't know why, and that's a good question, but we do work on it," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
The Mountaineers (3-3, 1-2 Big 12) average 147.5 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry, and those averages are sliding. They only have 10 runs of 20 yards or more in six games, and one is by a receiver.
Their top two rushing totals this season were against Football Championship Subdivision member William & Mary (172) and Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer Georgia State (245).
WVU averaged 208.5 yards in those two wins. Five of the season's runs of 20 yards or more came against Georgia State, but, perhaps tellingly, none came against William & Mary.
Against its other four FBS opponents, WVU is averaging 117 yards per game and 3.8 per carry. Against Big 12 teams, the averages are 118.3 per game and 3.7 per carry.
Opponents know the problem and it's been increasingly clear WVU knows it, too. The Mountaineers were averaging 195.3 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry just three weeks ago.
They ran 44 times against William & Mary and 42 times against Georgia State. They ran 24 times against Oklahoma, 25 times in a blowout loss to Maryland, 39 times for 68 yards while holding on to beat Oklahoma State and 34 times in a blowout loss Saturday against Baylor.
"They were five yards in our backfield just about every time," Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Yet the biggest problem with the running game is that it's forcing WVU to do what it hasn't felt comfortable doing all along.
This is a team that wanted to run at the start of the season because it didn't know the identity of its quarterback or its rotation among receivers. This is a team that still hasn't found a quarterback or settled on receivers and is suddenly shuffling its offensive line.
Yet this is a team that has to pass the ball.
The Mountaineers threw a season-high 51 passes against the Cowboys and 41 more against the Bears. That matched the second-highest total and it would have been higher if not for a season-high four sacks.
"Teams are stacking the box and making us throw the ball down the field," Dawson said. "The better we can do that, the better we can run it, no doubt, but at some point, we've got to back it up."
Baylor played a very ordinary defense against the Mountaineers, just quarters coverage with defensive backs patrolling their quadrant on the field. It's the very thing that WVU used last season that contributed to so many of its defensive deficiencies.
In their 4-2-5 alignment, the Bears would move one safety or both safeties up just before or immediately after the snap to add bodies to the box. That would prevent WVU from enjoying numerical advantages, which helped Baylor stop the run, but the crowd also shrunk the spaces where WVU would run short routes and attempt quick passes.
The Mountaineers knew it was coming and thought the counter was to throw the ball deep, which they did often and often without results.
"We had a lot of good throws and good looks at it, but we're not equipped to be able to make those throws and catches efficiently at this point in time," Holgorsen said.
It wasn't asking a lot of the receivers. A year ago, Baylor played the same defense and WVU passed for 656 yards and eight touchdowns.
On Saturday, the Mountaineers pushed the ball down the field again and again and rarely did it work during the time they had a legitimate opportunity to hang around with Baylor. The throws weren't always perfect and the receivers couldn't always get open, which are both issues, but the receivers also let some plays go and complained about others.
"A lot of the plays we should have come up with, but we felt like as an offense, they were holding us and we didn't get as many penalties as we should have," said Kevin White, who had seven receptions for 130 yards and two touchdowns. "But you've got to come away with the play regardless."
It was a bad look for the Mountaineers, who kept throwing the ball deep because they had to keep throwing the ball deep. Baylor unplugged WVU's running game. Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith had seven carries for 9 yards in the first quarter and seven for 24 in the second quarter.
By air or by ground, the Mountaineers gave the Bears no incentive to change their plan, which is something that won't escape future opponents.
"If we're consistently a big threat down the field, that's going to back the safeties up and expand things more for Charles and Dreamius," White said. "As receivers, we've got to get a lot better and a lot more consistent as playmakers."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.