by Brandon Priddy
Good morning Morgantown pic.twitter.com/OlbN8KUcRo
— Smoking Musket (@SmokingMusket) September 26, 2015
Hello beautiful. I’m ready to roll. Are you ready to roll? Let’s roll.
When a store or restaurant is opening for the first time, the owners will often do what’s called a “soft opening.” Basically they’ll open their doors to a limited number of customers – family and friends, neighbors, that sort of thing – with the aim of working out the kinks before a grand opening celebration that gets things rolling in earnest.
For a West Virginia football season that has begun 2015 with home games against Georgia Southern and Liberty, the concept seems appropriate. See a soft opening is still an opening. You’re selling your wares or making food, but you’re doing it a little out of the public eye and you’ve got a little margin for error. West Virginia has so far taken on a pair of foes that don’t necessarily have the brand to match the level of football they play and as such have remained largely off the national radar.
And honestly, given that they’re breaking in a new starting quarterback as well as new starting receivers on the outside (one of whom is a true freshman) the concept was probably necessary. Last year’s veteran squad acquitted themselves very well when they opened last season against #2 Alabama in Atlanta, but I don’t know that this year’s offense could have survived in similar conditions. The performance against Georgia Southern was impressive, but there were enough miscues in the Liberty game that it’s clear this is still a unit coming together.
But come Saturday afternoon around 3 Eastern (2 if you’re hanging with me here in the Lord’s time zone) the soft open is over and it’s time to see what this 2015 edition of the Mountaineers is really made of. And stuff is gonna get real real fast. The annual barometer that we all know as the Maryland game is of vital importance, but awaiting WVU after that is as tough of a four game stretch as any Mountaineer team has faced. Four ranked teams, 3 of those on the road and two of those roadies against top 5 teams. Like I said, a soft open wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to this team. But that’s all over and it’s time to get ready for some big stages. Let’s tackle things one by one as we get set to watch WVU take on old nemesis Maryland in the last remaining border battle.
You notice some funny things as you look through the box scores of WVU’s games against Maryland under Dana Holgorsen’s tenure regarding WVU’s scoring pace throughout the game. First off I’m eliminating the 2013 game where WVU was shutout 37-0. It is an outlier for many reasons and obviously doesn’t tell us much about scoring. So if we just look at the other 3 contests since Holgo came to town, we learn:
- WVU has scored 14 points in each of the 3 first quarters.
- WVU has scored at least in double digits in each of the 3 second quarters and is averaging 23 points in the 3 first halves.
- WVU has never hit double digits in either the 3rd or 4th quarter of any of those 3 games, maxing out at 9 in the 3rd quarter last year.
- WVU has averaged just 9.7 points in the second half of those three games.
So we tend to get off to fast starts but tail off. Which honestly is fine with me. Jed and I were talking the other day and we both agree we’d much prefer a solid yet somewhat ugly win to a stellar highlight reel performance. Those don’t typically come in packages and you’d much rather take a hungry team to Norman looking to prove something than one coming off a virtuoso performance.
The Mountaineers rank first in average defensive field position and second in average offensive field position in the nation. The only team with a better offensive field position? You guessed it, the Fightin’ Will Likelys.
A big part of that is the 5 turnovers WVU earned in the season opener, but special teams has thus far been solid. It’s not crazy to think that a big return could provide an early spark. Certainly Maryland has the edge in punt returners, but KJ Dillon looked very comfortable against Liberty. A big punt return would go a long, long way towards igniting a WVU crowd that has become accustomed to covering their eyes and praying when the opposing punter comes out.
What the SignalCaller Sees
I had a chance to chat with Jed, and he made his usual interesting set of observations:
- Traditionally byes are good for a team, but under Dana Holgorsen that’s not necessarily been the case. WVU has not beaten the spread in any of their last 10 games coming off a bye week.
- Thus far Maryland has yet to give up a sack and on the surface that’s a good thing, but once you watch tape of quarterback Caleb Rowe you see a guy with a quick release who also makes decisions quickly – not all of them good. In fact there are times this year where a sack might not have been the worst thing in the world for him to take. The hope is that a veteran WVU defense will utilize their usual mix of blitzes to be able to exploit this propensity for hurried decision making. They may not have any sacks at the end of the game, but they could still cause plenty of trouble.
- Rowe also comes across on tape as a guy who doesn’t care for contact. Again, sacks aren’t the most important thing in the world, but if a couple love taps can get in his head a little, maybe you speed along that propensity for bad decisions.
- It would be great to see some turnovers. We all know it was a constant point of emphasis during the offsesason, and the early returns against Georgia Southern in the opener were great – 5 turnovers (4 interceptionss, 1 fumble recovery). Unfortunately the D came up empty in the follow-up effort against Liberty. It’s still early in the season and the D is forming it’s identity. Grabbing a couple fumbles against the Terps would be a great way to reinforce the identity the Mountaineers want to have on that side of the ball and these things have a habit of building on themselves.
- There’s a lot more to the consternation over red zone touchdowns than meets the eye. Just read Jed’s column. Here’s a taste:
Through two games, only three teams had reached the red zone more than West Virginia’s 13 trips but no team in the nation had run more plays in the red zone at that point than the 41 the Mountaineers ran. To put that in perspective, 29 percent of WVU’s 143 overall offensive snaps have taken place inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. When you set up camp in that part of the field that often, you’re giving yourself a chance to win a lot of football games.After breaking down all 41 of those snaps, I’m convinced the Mountaineers are close to being a very good red-zone offense. Sure, there have been mistakes by young players in key spots, but those mistakes are all correctable. I’ve seen raw receivers run routes at angles that were oh-so-close to springing them open in the end zone. I’ve seen dropped balls and throws that were a whisker off the mark, either because a defender’s hand was in the passer’s face or because the ball was delivered with too much velocity. I’ve seen easy touchdown runs left on the table because of indecisive zone-read execution.