Mountaineer O-line still a work in progress
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's an easy thing to point to when a football team's offense isn't playing well.
Blame the offensive line.
Trouble running the ball? The line isn't opening holes.
Difficulty passing? The quarterback is being harassed, the receivers don't have time to run their routes and both can be pinned on the line.
Shoot, even if a team is moving the ball but can't get out of its own way because of penalties, what are the most frequently called offensive fouls? That's right, holding and illegal procedure, more often than not by linemen.
But while it's an easy an all-encompassing excuse, often times it's true. And how true it is regarding West Virginia's struggling offense is perhaps a matter for debate.
"It's like everything else with our football team,'' Dana Holgorsen said in regard to his team's offensive line play. "The consistency's not winning football.''
Eight games into the season, West Virginia's offense can point to all of the above as faults. The Mountaineers aren't running the ball well (89th in the country), throwing it well (100th in pass efficiency and 102nd in completion percentage), converting third downs (111th), holding on to the ball (112th in turnovers) and the team as a whole is 77th in penalty yards.
Would better offensive line play help? There's no question it would, and perhaps the Mountaineers are making progress.
It's been slow progress, though.
"We have been improving up front,'' Holgorsen said. "Quinton Spain played the best game he's ever played [last week at Kansas State]. Pat Eger continues to get better. His first 16-17 snaps were really good and then he went down.''
Indeed, injuries have played a part in the problems up front. Eger went down early in the Kansas State game and didn't return. He's questionable this week against TCU. Spain also went down briefly last week, but returned. Adam Pankey, who was being counted on to help this season, missed much of the first half of the season after knee surgery last winter.
The bottom line is that the season to date has consisted of a lot of experimentation. The middle of the line - both guards and the center - had to be replaced and Holgorsen went with Tyler Orlosky in the middle and Marquis Lucas and Mark Glowinski at the guards, all playing for the first time. Only Glowinski has remained a consistent starter with Eger replacing Orlosky and Spain moving from tackle to guard in place of Lucas.
Curtis Feigt has started every game at right tackle, but when Spain was moved to guard, Nick Kindler took over at left tackle. Now Orlosky - who didn't even play two games after being replaced by Eger - is back in the mix because of Eger's injury, and Pankey continues to work himself back into playing form after his long layoff.
In other words, it's still a work in progress.
"Orlosky, Pankey, Marquise are young. They're going to keep improving,'' Holgorsen said. "In my opinion, [Curtis] Feigt and [Nick] Kindler need to get better. I think they took just a small step back last week and they know that and their challenge is to get out there and get better this week.''
Spain's performance against Kansas State was, of course, a bright spot. Long considered the lineman with the most potential, the 6-foot-5, 335-pound junior has not always lived up to the billing.
"He played physical and he played tough on every snap,'' first-year line coach Ron Crook said. "Now he has to be consistent and do that on every snap in every game.''
If he and the rest of the line do that, there seems little doubt things will improve. No, West Virginia isn't set everywhere else. The receivers are still inconsistent, the running backs seem to play in spurts and the quarterback situation has been a mess all year.
But at least some of that can be helped - or perhaps disguised - by better line play.
"You can have average receivers if you have a great offensive line,'' Holgorsen said. "I feel differently about the quarterback position. You need good quarterback play regardless if you have a good offensive line or a bad offensive line. The good quarterbacks can bail out a bad offensive line at times. I don't know if a great offensive line can bail out a bad quarterback.''
It would be interesting, though, to see what the offense could accomplish with some solid play up front. It could be one of the most important aspects involved as the Mountaineers attempt to win three of their last four games and become bowl eligible.
"It's still inconsistent. They're still learning to play together and still improving," Holgorsen said. "I am pleased with their effort and their attitude and their will to get better and continuously try to improve.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.