"You've got to get the initial first down because if you're sitting out there and you're not doing good things, the last thing you want to do is go three-and-out real fast," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "You've got to get some first downs to get your tempo going and we're not converting nearly enough third downs to do that."
Three-and-outs aren't an epidemic, but short drives have been common enough that WVU still isn't confident in its ability to sustain drives. Dawson said his offense should convert somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of their third-and-short plays. When it's third down and WVU needs three or fewer yards, WVU is 8-for-17.
Think that's bad? Consider this: The Mountaineers average 1.56 yards per carry on third down. They've run 12 times on a third down that needs four or more yards and lost 16 yards. There have been 60 passes on a third down that needed four or more yards. WVU has completed 32 passes, but only 17 have picked up first downs.
"We're still trying to figure out how to do things well instead of getting to a point offensively where your trying to focus on what the defense is doing and how to attack it successfully," Holgorsen said. "With an average offense and a lot of inexperience at key positions, it is tough to get first downs on second-and-5, let alone third-and-5."
The problem is how the Mountaineers arrive at third down. The numbers say WVU prefers to run on first down and pass on second down. On 106 first-down carries, WVU averages 4.54 yards. On 71 second-down pass attempts, WVU averages 4.0 yards per attempt and only counts 27 completions, which means 44 second-down plays didn't gain any yardage.
"It's no secret we're going try to establish the run and be more physical up front than we have in the past," Holgorsen said. "We've done a pretty good job in my opinion of getting the play started in the run game, but have not done a great job at getting the play started in the pass game. They have to go hand-in-hand. On order to be a good offensive football team, you have to be able to do both."
With all their inexperience, the Mountaineers cannot. They've faced 89 third downs this season and a stunning 52 required seven or more yards. They consistently find themselves in difficult spots and in search of reliable plays that just don't exist in abundance. That makes the plays and the calls before third down so much more important.
"When you're having problems on first-and-10, it is a lot harder on third-and-10," Holgorsen said. "You have to get good at routine plays and execution on what the play is and try to put the ball in play to get positive yards.
"The more success you have doing that, you would be surprised that many routine plays turn into bigger plays. You make a guy miss here or there and get first downs on second-and-5 instead of having to deal with third-and-4."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mi...@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.