MORGANTOWN — Whether it was the changes and inexperience at quarterback or inconsistent play and lineups at the receiver positions, Dana Holgorsen’s offense didn’t have the success at West Virginia last season to which it was accustomed.
Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress combined to pass for 3,148 yards. The lowest total by Holgorsen’s leading passer between 2007 and 2012 was Geno Smith’s 4,198 yards in 2012. The average yardage total was 4,868 yards.
Freshman Daikiel Shorts and running back Charles Sims tied for the team lead with 45 receptions. Mario Alford led the way with 552 receiving yards and Kevin White had a team-high five touchdown receptions.
The leader in receptions the previous six years had 113, 101, 111, 104, 86 and 134 receptions and never fewer than 907 yards. The leader in receiving yardage in those years — sometimes a different player than the leader in receptions — averaged 1,481 yards. The leader in touchdowns had 22, 11, 14, 20, 12 and 25.
The 2013 Mountaineers had trouble first identifying a quarterback and then keeping one healthy. They needed most of the season to figure out Shorts and junior college transfers White and Alford were their best receivers. Alford’s ascent was delayed because he began as an insider receiver and then accelerated when Ronald Carswell, another junior college transfer, was kicked off the team after starting four of the first eight games.
Yet WVU’s trouble was due in part to past success. Defenses wised up and used less zone and more man-to-man. It disarmed some of WVU’s options and it’s something Holgorsen is fixing during spring practice.
“We faced it more last year than we’ve faced it in the past and probably we’ll face it more next year potentially,” he said. “It depends on how good Mario can get at being a fade guy and how good Kevin can be at jump balls. That discourages a lot of man coverage. We’ve got guys that can beat you deep at the drop of a hat.
“But that’s what Oklahoma did exclusively. Texas did it quite a bit. Kansas did it quite a bit for a variety of reasons. But we can control that. We have some things to say about that.”
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Holgorsen’s offense may be revered for its stars and its successes, but it’s like many others. It uses a lot of combination plays that can be a run or a pass depending on how a defense sets and reacts and how the quarterback reads it.
WVU likes to run a stick-draw play where the quarterback can wait and hand the ball to a running back on a draw or wait and sell the draw and throw a simple pass to an inside receiver for easy yardage. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty has the authority to hand the ball off on an inside zone or flick a pass to a slot receiver running a slant. Kansas State and TCU both hurt WVU when the quarterback would run outside or sell that action and then throw a pass to a receiver on the move in space created by the threat of a quarterback run.
In all those instances, the offense is at a greater advantage when a defense plays zone. The offenses try to target linebackers, nickelbacks or the hybrid linebacker/defensive back types in the area they’re trying to cover. The offense’s options force that defensive player to make a decision and the offense acts off of that.
If the defender reads pass and covers someone in the zone, he leaves space for a run. If he reads run and goes for the ball, he’s left a receiver open in his area.
In man-to-man, the defender has a set assignment. There is no decision-making that can create possibilities for the offense, and the defense actually creates its own advantage.
“Quite a few teams use the zone read and that pop pass off the zone read,” WVU cornerbacks coach and former ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “You don’t want to put your defender in a run-pass conflict. He bites on the run and they throw a pass right behind him, or they run some kind of bubble screen off of it. When you go man, you take that out of the equation. He’s either a run defender or a pass defender, and you get an extra guy in the box with man coverage.
“That’s what a lot of teams did to us. If you look at our team, the most productive guy was Charles Sims. How do you take Charles Sims away? You put an extra guy in the box, and that’s what teams did. They played man and filled the box. I would do the same thing.”
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In a way, Sims was so good that he made things harder on himself and his teammates. In addition to his work in the passing game, Sims rushed for 1,095 yards. The Mountaineers feel like that never got enough praise on the outside because of how much opponents tried to stop Sims.
With WVU’s documented problems throwing and completing deep passes — Holgorsen called it “disgusting” following a loss to Texas — defenses didn’t feel a need to play safer zone defense. They instead went man-to-man, which a few Big 12 defenses liked to do anyway because of their personnel, and challenged White and Alford to win battles outside. The defenses worried more about Sims, who nevertheless averaged 5.2 yard per carry against considerable attention.
“I thought he was exceptional,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “It was one of the better seasons I’ve seen an individual have in my coaching career. I thought he was phenomenal considering what he was facing every game.”
The Mountaineers won’t have Sims in the fall, but they feel no less confident about their running game with some combination of sophomore Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Wendell Smallwood. They also understand the opposition anticipates that and might as well stick with a defensive approach that worked last season. If they play man-to-man and eliminate the run, they also do away with the threat of run-pass plays.
“People want to crowd the box and take away the run, and most people are going to have at least half a guy to a whole guy who you can’t block,” Dawson said. “Few teams play with a weak box. If they do, if they can play with a weak box and stop the run, you’re in trouble because you ought to be able to run against a weak box. But what people try to do is take your run away and make you throw against what they believe are their best coverage guys.”
As Holgorsen said, though, there are things WVU can do about that.
“You’ve got to win your one-on-one matchups,” Mitchell said. “That’s the bottom line. Can Mario get some clean releases off the line and then use his speed to stretch and create a mismatch? Can Kevin White catch the jump ball on a consistent basis? Can they make teams go zone?”
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Ideally, WVU would have figured that out last season, but Alford didn’t arrive until the summer and was hurt soon thereafter. He settled in outside and opposite White late in the season and won a few of those one-on-one matchups. In the final four games, he caught 18 passes for 450 yards (25 yards per reception, 112.5 per game) and had touchdowns of 72 and 76 yards against the man-to-man approaches of Texas and Iowa State — and Alford caught eight passes for 215 yards against the Cyclones.
The 6-foot-4 White, though, struggled with the jump balls and the 50-50 plays along the sideline. He was often knocked off the ball or had the ball swatted out of his hands, and the combination kept WVU from completing several deep passes and forcing the defense to back off the line and help the cornerbacks.
The problems weren’t solely theirs, though. Different quarterbacks and receivers failed to execute deep streaks and slants, but they also didn’t come through against good coverage. It was an unfortunate mix in the Big 12, which had some of the better defensive backfields and cornerbacks in the country.
Yet the Mountaineers let those plans succeed, which is what they seek to fix for the future.
“They’re going to overload the box,” Dawson said. “If you look at it, teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU, they played us the same way. If you’ve got really good corners, what are you going to do? You’re going to crowd the box and say, ‘OK, throw it outside. Throw it at our best players on our team.’ It takes away the run in a sense, but it’s up to us to abandon the run.
“There are ways we can still dictate what we’re going to do. We can’t let them, by alignment, take away the stuff we view that we do well. We’ve got to do what we do well, period. If you abandon certain parts of your game based on what they line up in, that’s probably the wrong thing to do.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.