Holgorsen: Offensive line must improve
MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen's critique of the play of his offensive line has pretty much run the gamut this season.
It has gone from expansive criticism after the first few games, to generous praise somewhere in the middle of the season, and to unrestrained condemnation later.
Now, though, he seems pretty much tired of addressing the issue. So he doesn't.
"None of them played well enough to win,'' Holgorsen said in regard to West Virginia's most recent game at Cincinnati, which the Mountaineers seemed to win in spite of the offensive line, not because of it. "We'll leave it at that, but they need to get better.''
Indeed. And they need to get better in a hurry.
When West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) resumes play after a week off, it will be against Pitt (5-5, 3-2) Friday night at Mountaineer Field. Against the Panthers, offensive line play will be a key.
The Panthers certainly have their flaws, but defensive line play isn't one of them. WVU's offensive line will be going against a Pitt defensive front that is allowing just 122 rushing yards per game, and one that ranks among the top 10 in the nation in sacks.
What does that mean for West Virginia's offensive line?
"It means we need to get better,'' Holgorsen said.
There have been times this season when WVU's offensive line woes could be explained away to some degree. Syracuse, for example, showed more different blitz packages in one game than most teams conjure up in a season.
But then against Cincinnati, West Virginia faced almost no blitzing. The Bearcats simply came straight at the Mountaineers with normal pressure from defensive linemen. They sacked quarterback Geno Smith on the first play of the game with a simple bull rush up the middle. By the time the day was over, Smith had been sacked five times.
"We sat in here and dealt with what Syracuse did against us by sending in more guys than we could block, but the opposite happened against Cincinnati,'' Holgorsen said. "They didn't bring any pressure and it still was challenging. We've got to get better.
"We've got to block better, we've got to finish blocks better and we've got to [recruit] guys to come in here that are better than the ones we've got.''
Recruiting new linemen, though, won't help on Friday. Pitt is averaging more than three sacks per game.
Aaron Donald, a 6-foot, 270-pound sophomore tackle, is among the nation's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, but he's by no means a lone ranger. Brandon Lindsey, a 6-2, 250-pound senior defensive end, and 6-5, 285-pound senior tackle Chas Alecxih also are among the leading sackers in the Big East, and 6-2, 230-pound senior linebacker Max Gruder joins those three among the leaders in tackles for loss. Gruder also ranks second in the league in overall tackles.
The Mountaineers have played all season long with essentially six offensive linemen, and that's not likely to change now. Tackles Don Barclay and Pat Eger, guards Jeff Braun and Tyler Rader, and center Joe Madsen have started every game. Quinton Spain has been the only consistent substitute, occasionally playing both guard positions and Eger's right tackle spot.
Barclay and Rader are the only seniors on the line. Madsen and Braun are juniors, Eger a sophomore and Spain a redshirt freshman.
If West Virginia's offensive line can't give Smith time against that pass rush, it will be difficult for the Mountaineers.
"Have we called them out? Yes, we're challenging them,'' Holgorsen said. "We love them, we want them to get better, we're going to work hard with them and get them healed up. We're going to put them in a position to be successful, but at some point they've got to figure out a way to get it done."
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.