WVU FOOTBALL: Early downs hurt Mountaineers last season

Mel Moraes/For the Daily Mail
The WVU offense ranked 116th out of 124 FBS teams last season at converting third downs, thanks in large part to poor production on first and second downs.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are ways to describe West Virginia’s offense in 2013. Shannon Dawson opts for the easiest.

“Bad,” the WVU offensive coordinator said.

There are ways to explain that bad offense after a season where many things went wrong. The most comprehensive is to point at what the Mountaineers did on third down. They only converted 31.89 percent of the time, which ranked No. 116 out of 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Simply put, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen’s touted offense couldn’t extend drives and stay on the field to do the damage his friends and foes had come to expect. The Mountaineers had chances, too, with 185 third downs. That’s a lot in 12 games and the 16 per game was the 18th-highest total in the country.

Put together, WVU had a lot of empty drives and did a lot of punting.

“That’s bad,” Dawson said. “It means you’re not very good on first and second down.”

He’s making a point, not a joke.

Out of 185 third downs last season, WVU needed seven or more yards for the first down 108 times. The average distance needed on third down was just shy of eight yards. The Mountaineers averaged only 5.3 yards per play last season and converted just 25 of the 108 third-and-longs.

The reason the Mountaineers found trouble so often on third down was because they misused first and second down.

“Second down is when you need to start thinking,” Dawson said. “Second and 10 is not a bad situation. If you’re sitting there and it’s first and 10 and they give you a post route, yeah, take a shot. If it doesn’t work, second and 10 is not bad if you have the right mentality to get to a manageable third down. You don’t want third and 10.”

Dawson said the offense didn’t manage the game the right way last season. Too often he saw players try and fail to get a first down on second and long when he would have preferred to see them set up a makeable third down.

Second down was just as big of a problem as third down. The Mountaineers needed 10 or more yards on 56 of the 108 third-and-longs and only got the first down 10 times.

“A lot of it was not knowing where to go with the ball,” Dawson said. “If you sit and watch the tape, typically there was a place to go with the ball. We weren’t finding those places last year.”

That was an every-down ordeal for the Mountaineers, and though Dawson knows “people get tired of hearing it,” the inexperience and instability at quarterback was a culprit. The quarterback wasn’t alone, though, and whoever was under center didn’t get a lot of help from the many new and young players surrounding him.

Holgorsen said he and his assistants spent much of the season “searching and searching and changing and changing” to fit the offense around the players and their capabilities. Constantly encountering third-and-long made for even more alterations.

“You can probably get away from what you’re good at and what you’ve been good at in the past, and you try to manipulate ways to do things instead of letting things happen naturally,” Dawson said.

WVU is back to what it’s been before under Holgorsen because he and Dawson have so many players who know the offense. The Mountaineers understand not only how to execute plays, but how one play is linked to another. A smart play on second down can set up an easier third down and the offense can stay on the field and score more points.

WVU works on third downs in practice by starting on second down. The coaches put the players into random second-down situations and give them two downs to get the first down.

It’s merely one way to fix the problem, and it might not be the best way or even the one the Mountaineers feel so confident about this season.

“In my opinion, it fixes itself,” Dawson said. “I’m not saying we don’t sit here and coach it or that we don’t stress it, but I think you can overstress it. There are certain problems that fix themselves. With having the same people back, being more efficient, understanding our offense, typically that fixes itself.

“It’s something you still talk about with the quarterback and the position guys, but I think quarterback play is going to help that (problem) having a guy now with experience.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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