MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — In its first two games of the season, West Virginia has gained 999 yards of total offense, scored 77 points and turned the ball over just once — by a backup quarterback playing with a 40-point lead.
That offense has converted more than half its third downs, averaged 6.1 yards per play and been forced to punt just five times.
Quarterback Clint Trickett’s completion percentage is just a hair over 75 percent and in eight quarters the offense has been penalized just twice — 10 yards for a hold and a loss of down for intentional grounding, both in the opener against Alabama.
By almost any measure, those are outstanding numbers. So is this: In 23 possessions the Mountaineers have gone three-and-out just three times, never in the first three quarters of a game. Red-zone scoring opportunities haven’t always been capitalized upon (11 scores in 14 chances, but in addition to the three non-scores there have also been three times WVU had to settle for field goals), but that’s really the only thing about which to complain.
Well, and this: There has been a noticeable lack of big plays.
“Yeah, a little bit,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said when asked about the paucity of explosive plays. “And we had a little talk offensively about that.”
That might sound like nit-picking, but in truth it’s not. For starters, WVU’s offense is predicated upon getting playmakers in space and giving them an opportunity to make those big plays. Also, an offense that continually chips away at a defense without striking quickly runs more of a risk of making errors — turnovers or penalties — as the play count rises.
“We’ve had 14 or 15 explosive plays per game, but we haven’t had explosive plays to the point where we score,” Holgorsen said. “An explosive play in our definition is a 12-yard rush, a 14-yard screen and 16-yard pass. That’s an explosive play. We keep track of that. I would like some of those explosive plays to turn into touchdowns, and right now they’re not.”
Those same numbers prove Holgorsen’s point of a lack of explosive scoring plays. In the first two games WVU has had just nine plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more and just one measuring more than 30 — a 32-yard pass from Trickett to Kevin White against Alabama. None of those nine plays resulted in touchdowns.
In fairness, the defense has given up even fewer 20-yard plays (seven), and none of those were scores, either. But at some point — particularly given the explosive nature of the opposing offenses remaining on the schedule — it will catch up to West Virginia if something doesn’t change.
For instance, Maryland — Saturday’s opponent in a noon game at College Park — has four receivers who have already caught passes of at least 20 yards and the list doesn’t even include the most explosive of the bunch, junior Stefon Diggs. The Terps also have two runners who have broken loose for gains of 20 yards or more, one of them quarterback C.J. Brown.
In many ways, the issue in a lack of big plays is small things.
“We’re getting tackled by our feet too much,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “We have to break those foot tackles. And sometimes it’s a matter of one downfield block or running through an arm tackle.”
Also in fairness to the offense, the competition to date has not been the type against which big plays are routine. First there was Alabama with a decided skill advantage. And then Towson, while a 54-0 victim, seemed perfectly satisfied to play back and give WVU whatever it wanted underneath as long as no one got behind its defense.
“Part of what Towson’s plan was to keep everything in front of them,” Holgorsen said. “And they did a better job of rallying and blocking than we did making guys on the very last level miss and going and scoring. Yes, I’m a little concerned about it, and we’re going to work on it and try to get better.”
The first test comes Saturday against Maryland.
“We’ll see what Maryland’s plan is going to be defensively. If we have opportunities to go over the top of them, I can assure you that we’re going to,” Holgorsen aid. “With that said, we’ve got to be able to complete a curl route or a screen pass and be able to go score at times. That’s what great offenses do.”
— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) September 10, 2014