Another step backward
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps West Virginia goes to Stillwater, Okla., this weekend and wins. After all, stranger things have happened.
In order to do so, though, it will take correcting a litany of issues that seems to grow by the week, not shrink.
Yes, there's an argument to be made that the Mountaineers improved in some areas during the off week that preceded Saturday's game with TCU. But the very fact that West Virginia lost to a struggling team at home after throwing away almost countless chances to win would seem to indicate beyond a doubt that not enough improvement was made.
The simple fact is that while some areas improved, others regressed. Badly. Thus that 39-38, double-overtime loss.
The biggest area of improvement? Defense. It was a group that produced six three-and-outs and three turnovers. TCU averaged just 2.8 yards per rush and completed but 43 percent of its passes. The Horned Frogs found themselves punting nine times. That's almost twice as many punts as WVU's previous four opponents had combined (5).
But is it really wise to look at this as some sort of defensive resurrection? TCU, quite frankly, is very limited on offense with a redshirt freshman quarterback who was thrown into the fire a month ago, its leading rusher out for the season and injury problems elsewhere.
Consider that TCU went into a game against the worst pass defense in the nation with an apparent conviction to run the football, rather than trust Trevone Boykin to throw against that sieve-like secondary. The Horned Frogs ran the ball on 45 of 75 offensive snaps and threw only when necessary.
Oh, and when it was necessary, they got it done. Any apparent improvement in West Virginia's pass defense throughout most of the game was erased when the outcome was on the line and Josh Boyce got behind everyone to catch a 94-yard touchdown pass with 88 seconds to play to send the game into overtime. And then a trick-play pass in the second overtime went for 25 yards and a touchdown and another completed pass won it with a two-point conversion.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But struggles with the defense are to be expected. No one thought that overnight this group would become the Steel Curtain. It was pretty much a given that the most likely way things would be turned around would be if the other parts of WVU's game rendered moot the defensive deficiencies. That was how West Virginia got to 5-0 in the first place, right?
But in almost every area the Mountaineers have gone backwards.
The offense is a mere shadow of its once-fearsome self. After scoring three touchdowns in the previous two games, a 38-point outburst might seem a step in the right direction. But West Virginia punted eight times, matching the number in the previous two lopsided losses combined. Of the five touchdowns the Mountaineers scored, one came on a punt return, another after a turnover and a 9-yard drive (that took four plays), and a third on the 25-yard overtime field.
That means of the 19 possessions in the game - yes, 19 - two resulted in work-for-it touchdowns by the offense. The running game averaged 2.2 yards on 35 attempts. For the second time in three games, Geno Smith completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes after completing 81 percent in the first five games.
In the area of special teams, there is really but one saving grace - Tavon Austin. He has five special teams touchdowns in his career, including one in each of the last two games. Coach Dana Holgorsen tried to defend his special teams a bit after Saturday's game by saying that the only real issue was the snaps and kicks. But WVU ranks 86th in the nation in punt return defense and 87th in kick return defense.
Oh, and those snaps and kicks were a difference-maker against TCU. Tyler Bitancurt couldn't pick up a low punt snap from John DePalma and TCU scooped up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. WVU's collection of punters and the coverage ranks 110th in the country in net punting. And while Bitancurt shattered his career high with a 52-yard field goal, it was the only one of four tries he made. He missed 50- and 55-yarders and had a 36-yarder blocked that would have won the game in the first overtime.
And finally, the decision-making process on the sideline has to be questioned. At the end of the first half, West Virginia got the ball on its 32-yard line with 3:46 to play, leading 21-14. When two plays lost eight yards, Holgorsen elected to slow the offense and let the clock run all the way down before trying the third-and-12 play. Then Smith completed a 12-yard pass to Austin for a fresh set of downs with 2:28 left.
After that came a rather passive series which resulted in a fourth-and-1 near midfield. Again Holgorsen let the clock run all the way down, and this time called time with 47 seconds. Then he sent the offense back out in a formation which seemed to indicate a quick kick by Smith. But the play blew up and Smith had to scramble, gaining eight yards and a first down. Only then did the offense display any sense of urgency, but four plays didn't go very far and that's when Bitancurt missed his 50-yarder.
What happened to the offense that was aggressive and going for it on fourth down five times against Texas? Granted, the textbook way of handling that possession was to be cautious, but this was more a combination of caution and aggression, neither of which worked.
Then at the end of regulation, two things. On a possession on which one first down would have sealed the game, West Virginia's offense ran a game plan designed to force TCU to use all of its timeouts, not to get a first down. It worked, but TCU got the ball back and scored anyway.
And then after getting the ball back with 88 seconds and a chance to drive for a winning field goal, the offense got to the CU 38 with 41 seconds to play. And with third-and-10 from there and 24 seconds left, that's when the aggression returned, going for it all with a pass into the end zone to J.D. Woods. It didn't work and Bitancurt was left to try a doomed 55-yard field goal into the wind.
And by the way, neither Austin nor Stedman Bailey touched the ball on the last possession. Austin was targeted once. He didn't touch the ball in the first overtime, either, when true freshman Travares Copeland was Smith's primary target in what appeared to be a passive attempt just to maintain field position and kick the winning field goal.
Again, probably a textbook strategy. But how much of Holgorsen and this offense are textbook? That's not the way they played the game when they were winning.
The bottom line is that three losses do not a ruined season make. But three digressive losses are cause for concern. A season that once seemed assured of ending well might now end prematurely. This is a team that isn't even bowl eligible and has games with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma coming up, followed by a trip to Iowa State.
If there's not dramatic improvement, the Dec. 1 home finale with Kansas might be for bowl eligibility. And dramatic improvement is a lot to ask for a team that has shown almost none to date.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.