The Mountaineers' offensive line strains to keep Marshall pass rushers away from quarterback Geno Smith.
MORGANTOWN - There were more than a few here-we-go-again moments Sunday afternoon and evening during West Virginia's aborted 34-13 win over Marshall.
Almost all of them concerned the Mountaineers' offensive line.
A group that was, well, challenged last year and then rebuilt and somewhat shuffled during the spring and summer, couldn't exactly stand together afterward and boast of a job well done. Not after West Virginia averaged 1.6 yards per rush and quarterback Geno Smith found himself scrambling far more than anyone would have liked.
That Smith was sacked just once was a testament not to the play of the line, but to the quarterback's own elusiveness in the face of protection breakdowns, which were many.
Still, after fielding more questions about the line than he obviously cared to, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen came to the unit's defense.
"I think we're paying attention to the wrong thing,'' Holgorsen said Monday. "Marshall did some good things and we were trying to get some of that stuff worked out on the sidelines
and sometimes it takes a little time. When you have eight drives and score on five of them, I think a lot of people across the country would be happy with that.''
OK, so maybe it's nit-picking. But don't tell me that alarms didn't go off every time one of West Virginia's power plays was stuffed even with two fullbacks serving as lead blockers or decoys. Or when Smith was routinely forced out of the pocket.
The fact is, when WVU lined up in any kind of power formation - one fullback or two - the plays almost never worked. Tailback Andrew Buie lost three yards on a second-and-goal at the MU 6 in the first quarter. On two tries with the formation on the third possession of the game, Buie lost a yard each time.
The Mountaineers went for it on fourth-and-inches in the third quarter and Vernard Roberts gained nothing. And then during the brief time the game was resumed after a three-hour delay, the formation was tried again and Roberts failed to get into the end zone on a third-and-goal power play. That one didn't matter because Marshall committed a personal foul on the play and made it first-and-goal, but the power play still didn't work until it was first-and-an-inch after the penalty and Roberts still barely crossed the goal line.
It was eerily reminiscent of the short-yardage woes of a few years ago in the Bill Stewart-Jeff Mullen offense. The approach was slightly different, but the results were the same.
And even Holgorsen wasn't ready to completely charge to the rescue of the reconfigured offensive line.
"[It was] Just OK. Not bad,'' Holgorsen said. "And I give Marshall credit for what they were doing schematically.''
That's the one thing, apparently, that made the performance of the offensive line palatable for Holgorsen. Because Marshall was mixing its rushes and alignments, Holgorsen was able to deflect any criticism of the group off of the players and onto the coaching staff. The coaches simply had not done enough to help the line.
Perhaps, given another quarter of play, all of those issues would have been corrected.
But it still raises red flags. Smith isn't supposed to scrambling for his well-being back there. Ever. Holgorsen said in August that he's never had a starting quarterback injured in his six years as an offensive coordinator and credited much of that record to an offensive scheme that gets the ball out quickly.
"Geno does a good job of getting himself out of some situations and when defenses blitz as much as that there's going to be pressure,'' Holgorsen said. "We've got to do a better job receiver-wise and coaching-wise of getting Geno in situations where he can get the ball out of his hands a little bit quicker.''
That would obviously help the offensive line, too.
On the plus side, of course, was watching Smith evade the constant pressure. Many of his best pass completions were when he was running away from the pocket. He also scrambled twice for first downs, although Holgorsen would prefer that he not run more than absolutely necessary.
"He scrambled twice and both times he did it I thought he made the right decision, obviously,'' Holgorsen said.
Both times Smith elected to run the ball he was almost dared to do it by the Marshall defense. Each time he scrambled out of the pocket and rolled out and both times he tucked and ran only after surveying every receiving option on the field. Each time he found himself in wide open space, although the second time he did have to put a little juke move on a defender at the end of the run and dived around him to get to the first-down marker.
"They were showing a lot of people up [near the line] and blitzing while getting the back end deep. Or they were showing a lot of people up to discourage the run and then getting their linebackers way deep on the second level,'' Holgorsen said. "The decisions for him to take off and run were good based on him getting [8 and 15 yards on his two tries] for first downs. It just depends on what they're doing defensively.''
How long the line can protect, too, is obviously a factor and on Sunday that wasn't very long. Give the group the benefit of the doubt for now, however, and assume that Holgorsen is sincere when he says it is primarily a coaching issue and the right adjustments weren't made.
If that's not the case, everyone will find out soon enough.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org