Wendell Smallwood's fumble was one of six turnovers committed by West Virginia against Maryland Saturday.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's impossible to look at West Virginia's troubles on offense this season without pointing to turnovers as a prime concern.Yes, they've actually been overshadowed by other offensive issues, not the least of which is an inability to throw the football. In four games, the Mountaineers have thrown for 876 yards. In one game alone last season, against Baylor, WVU had 700 yards passing.Consider for a moment, though, what turnovers have wrought.In a loss at Oklahoma, the Mountaineers were driving for a go-ahead touchdown when wide receiver Kevin White fumbled at the OU 16 yard line. Paul Millard also threw an interception in Oklahoma territory and Mario Alford fumbled a punt that set up the Sooners' only touchdown of the game.Then last weekend at Maryland, another fumbled punt, this one by Ronald Carswell, and a pass interception led to the Terps' first two touchdowns and a 14-0 lead. Before the first half was done, Ford Childress would throw another interception at his own 6 and it was 30-0 at the half.No one is saying that simply holding onto the football will cure what ails the Mountaineers. But it would certainly help."It's not like there's one guy that we've giving the ball to a bunch and he's got a fumbling problem,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It can be fixed pretty easy, and I think it will be.''
The breakdown of turnovers so far goes like this: Millard has thrown one interception and Childress three, punts have been fumbled and lost by Alford and Carswell, and quarterbacks, running backs and receivers have given it up the other six times. There was White's fumble and another by Millard in the pocket at Oklahoma, Millard was sacked and fumbled against William & Mary, and at Maryland both Sims and Wendell Smallwood fumbled deep in Maryland territory. The other fumble was credited to Childress on an ill-advised attempt to lateral to Sims while being sacked.So the only player who has turned the ball over more than once on a fumble is Millard, who isn't playing anymore.But if, indeed, those offensive fumbles can be remedied, there are still two other turnover issues that haunt the Mountaineers as they prepare for Saturday's home game against No. 11 Oklahoma State. The first is obvious."Well, we could field a punt,'' Holgorsen said. "That would be a start because that's been an issue.''
Indeed, the two muffed punts have been huge because both came early against good opponents when the Mountaineers were holding their own and then some. They led Oklahoma 7-3 when Alford fumbled and had field position and momentum early against Maryland when Carswell coughed it up. Both teams scored to take the lead after the muffed punts and never trailed again.Carswell is the third punt returner West Virginia has used this season - Jordan Thompson was the other - and Holgorsen seems content with sticking with him because he likes Carswell's confidence."You can't just keep playing musical chairs,'' Holgorsen said, likening it to his quarterback situation. "It's the same thing at punt returner. You've got to believe in some kids. And I do believe in them. I'm going to believe in them a little bit more and we're going to go out and we're going to practice and we're going to get better."Their guy dropped two. The wind was swirling. It was wet. He made a poor decision. He's inexperienced. He's going to get better at it. I like his confidence and I think he's got the mental makeup to where he's going to get better at it.''
The other issue with turnovers is on the other side of the ball. West Virginia has forced eight turnovers in four games, but has managed to score just seven points after those turnovers. On half the occasions that the defense has given the offense the ball on turnovers, the offense has given it back with one of its own."We're much improved on defense. We're doing good things on defense. I love our attitude,'' Holgorsen said, specifically citing Will Clarke, Darwin Cook and Karl Joseph for their play at Maryland. "But when we're getting turnovers, we're not setting up scores. That's one of our goals on defense is to set up a couple of scores.''It would be nice, of course, if when the defense does force a turnover, the offense would take advantage. Often times, that's the best time to strike, on a quick change when momentum is shifting."But we're having a hard time scoring period,'' Holgorsen said. "So it's not like when we get a turnover all of a sudden we've got a killer instinct and can go out and execute the offense."But we're not setting them up. We're giving it to them in the wrong spots at the wrong time. Defensively, if we want to go from being good to great we've got to start making some critical plays in some critical situations and helping our offense set up scores. Or score [on defense] if that's what we need to do.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.