As of this week, the good vibes stemming from the West Virginia University football team’s 27-21 double-overtime win over Baylor have faded and it’s back to the task at hand coming off a bye week for the Mountaineers.
That task is a tall one and unique one and it will begin on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium as WVU (2-1 overall, 1-1 Big 12 Conference) welcomes in Kansas (0-3, 0-2) for a noon kickoff. The game will air on Fox.
“It’s really unique. We’re the only ones,” WVU coach Neal Brown said of a stretch of five games in five weeks that now lies squarely in front of his team, a span that no other team in the Big 12 will face this season.
While there were obviously positive takeaways from the Mountaineers’ conquest of Baylor, there were plenty of evident deficiencies as well, particularly on offense and, more specifically, in the passing game.
Brown pointed out on Tuesday that the struggles aren’t necessarily represented in the team’s statistics. After all, the Mountaineers are averaging 263.7 passing yards per game entering this weekend, good enough for 26th out of 76 teams nationally and fourth best among Big 12 schools. West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege is third among league throwers (241 yards per game) and fourth in completion percentage (66.3%).
Yet where the Mountaineers have yet to break through, at least on a consistent basis, is throwing the ball downfield and accounting for explosive plays. Doege’s average of seven yards per attempt is seventh in the Big 12 and 46th nationally.
Obviously, all of that doesn’t fall on the Mountaineer signal-caller. There have been protection issues. There has been inconsistent play at wideout. But the combination of it all was a focal point of the bye week, and with such a long, grueling stretch looming ahead, all involved agreed that finding success in that area early on Saturday would go a long way in terms of confidence moving forward.
“There’s two ways to do it — you’ve got to throw the ball downfield or you’ve got to make people miss. That was our big point of emphasis,” Brown said. “I think it’s going to be defining — how we’re going to be as an offense. We’ve shown the ability to run the ball decently to above average, but we’ve got to be able to stretch the field and our quarterback and receivers have to be able to make some plays.”
“We better have some good results and improve,” WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker added. “Of course, we need to push it downfield and find ways to get the ball vertical better. That’s on us as a staff, me and Coach Brown are responsible for making sure we get it done and then it’s picking the times to do it.”
In terms of throwing deep, as Parker sees it, the most important thing is to keep trying. Against a Kansas team that has looked outmatched in losses to Coastal Carolina (38-23), Baylor (47-14) and Oklahoma State (47-7), there may not be a better opportunity to iron those things out.
“Stephen Curry doesn’t worry about missing a 3-pointer, he’s going to shoot five more and he’s probably going to put four of them in,” Parker said. “That’s the key to pushing the ball vertically and throwing it downfield. You’ve got to be so confident and believe that if you don’t hit the first one, the next one is going to, and if that one doesn’t, you’ve got to try again and trust it too.
“From where I grew up there’s an old adage that you can’t win the Kentucky Derby by screaming, ‘Whoa.’ It’s the same thing in being an offensive-mindset team and who we are on offense. We don’t want to sit there and say, ‘Whoa.’ We want to say, ‘Go, go, go.’”
With a running game that is at the very least commanding respect while averaging 177 yards per game — an improvement of more than 100 yards per contest a year ago — things downfield would figure to be more open now. But long pass plays don’t always have to be long throws, and some of the onus has been put on the receivers where Brown said minutes and rotations could look different this week than over the first three games.
“We haven’t played good enough at wideout and I think you’ll see more people play at those spots,” Brown said. “The reps will look a little different. It depends who produces this week in practice who will start the game, but we do plan on playing more and the reps will probably be a little more evenly distributed than they were the last two games.”
A final aspect of the offense that could alleviate some of the issues is the further incorporation of screen passes into the offense. Those calls were certainly more a part of the game plan against Baylor than they were in a 27-13 loss at Oklahoma State the week prior.
With running backs Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield more than capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and making defenders miss, as well as a receiving corps full of athletes and an offensive front that has struggled at times protecting Doege in the face of a barrage of opponent blitzes, screen passes would seem to be a logical counter.
“It’s one of those things where certain defenses give you tough looks to throw screens into, our defense being one of them,” Parker said. “So you go through a complete fall camp and you don’t get a chance to use the screen game as much as you’d like because you’re facing our defense. And as the season develops, you face pass rush and want to get guys in space and want to throw screens more.
“It’s on all of us to continue to grow that package and it gives our offensive line a good change of pace, allows them get in space and run, alleviates some pass rush, so it’s something we’ve got to continue to grow and we will.”