Biggest Surprise (Positive)
Tony Dobies: RB Dustin Garrison
Heading into the season, most people had to believe running back Andrew Buie, or maybe fellow back Vernard Roberts, would be the starter.
From what I had heard, Garrison had fallen behind those two. Then, he rips off 291 yards against Bowling Green, and he has been a steady, solid player for the Mountaineers’ offense. He runs tougher and has better vision than any back WVU has on its roster.
Patrick Southern: Offensive Line Play
In recent years, it seemed like a rite of fall: the leaves changed colors, the weather turned colder, the days got shorter, and WVU’s offensive line underperformed.
Not so in 2011, though. Position coach Bill Bedenbaugh has molded a front five capable of competing with any defensive front in the country (see the way it pass protected for Geno Smith in the LSU loss as Exhibit A). Success in any offense starts up front, and the big fellas have been a huge key in West Virginia’s smooth transition into Dana Holgorsen’s system.
Biggest Surprise (Negative)
TD: P Corey Smith
I knew Smith had been inconsistent in his time at WVU. That’s one of the reasons he didn’t win the punting job a year ago. It’s the same reason he’s been passed up by Michael Molinari, as well.
I was not as worried about Smith as I was kicker Tyler Bitancurt in August. But, Bitancurt has been as consistent as anyone, and Smith has been the complete opposite.
PS: DE Julian Miller
This was difficult, and Miller truly hasn’t been a disappointment as much as he has been simply not at full strength. But because he has been dealing with injury issues, Miller has not been on the field for as many snaps. And as a result of that, WVU is just getting into its optimal defensive line rotation.
Will Clarke has performed admirably in Miller’s stead. But the lack of depth on the D-line has lead position coach Bill Kirelawich to play Bruce Irvin on an every down basis while Miller has been limited.
With Miller back to full health, Clarke can continue to play and Irvin can come in with fresh legs on passing downs and do considerable damage.
Best Offensive Player
TD: WR Stedman Bailey
There hasn’t been a more consistent player on WVU’s offense than Bailey, who is the Big East’s best receiver in terms of yards per game.
He has taken advantage of the Mountaineers’ high-powered offense more than any player. His relationship with quarterback Geno Smith has really allowed Bailey to make a name for himself as a sophomore.
PS: WR Stedman Bailey
It’s boring when Tony and I agree, I know. But how could the answer be anyone else at this point? Bailey has been unbelievably consistent and is on pace to smash several school receiving records.
He’s a top-notch route-runner, the most sure-handed receiver on WVU’s roster and, as he showed against UConn, even has breakaway speed in the open field. He and Tavon Austin are the threats that must keep defensive coordinators awake at night.
Best Defensive Player
TD: S Darwin Cook
There are a lot of players that I could put on this list, including linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. But I really have been the most impressed with Cook, who is the team’s third-leading tackler behind cornerback Pat Miller and Goode.
The Mountaineers needed a hard-hitting safety to make plays this year, and Cook has really been that player.
PS: LB Najee Goode
At this point, he’s everything WVU needs, whenever the Mountaineers need it. The senior started in the middle linebacker spot at the beginning of the season, but when Doug Rigg went down with an injury, he more than capably slid over to the strong side to make room for Jewone Snow.
Goode has the right mix of aggressiveness and sure-headedness to be a star in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 defense. He’s physical, smart and athletic enough to make plays on the ball. And he does what all great leaders do in sports -- he makes the players around him better.
Biggest Team Strength
I believed this before the season, and the receivers have proven to be the best throughout the year, too.
Outside of Bailey, players like Tavon Austin, Ivan McCartney, Tyler Urban, Devon Brown and others have showed a really impressive knack for catching quarterback Geno Smith’s passes. This is also the deepest position on the team, I’d confidently say.
PS: Offensive Weaponry
This may seem like a bit of a cop-out answer, but it’s true: WVU has shown an ability to pass over just about every defense (see what the Mountaineers did to LSU) and, when a defense overcommits to trying to stop that aerial assault, it can and will run the ball capably (see what Dustin Garrison did to Bowling Green).
At this point, I’m truly not sure what an opposing defensive coordinator can try to do tactically to shut down this West Virginia offense. Almost every receiver who plays regularly has shown himself to be capable, and Garrison looks increasingly solid as well.
Biggest Team Weakness
I have been a bit underwhelmed with this unit so far this season. The season-opening starter Doug Rigg went down with an injury, but he was just solid in his starts.
The unit isn’t as athletic as it was a year ago, and you’ve seen that a bit. A lack of a defensive line like last year’s, which just overwhelmed offensive linemen, has been a factor, as well.
PS: Special Teams
Tyler Bitancurt has been surprisingly consistent and effective this season, so he is not included in this, but until the UConn game, most other special teams units had been disappointing.
Punting was a major issue, as fans were tiring of Corey Smith’s shanked kicks so much that they cheered when Michael Molinari’s first attempt against the Huskies simply stayed in bounds. Molinari was impressive, but it was only one game. He will need to be consistent.
For whatever reason, punt returns have been problematic at times, as Tavon Austin has let many balls bounce and cost his team yards. And both kickoff and punt coverage units have been shaky at times as well.
Most Improved Player
TD: K Tyler Bitancurt
In the spring, it was hard to watch Bitancurt kick. It was either a miss or a block on nearly every attempt. It wasn’t much better during the first week of fall camp.
But, then something happened – and honestly I have no idea what it was. Now, Bitancurt has been about as consistent as can be.
PS: WR Ivan McCartney
As a true freshman, McCartney had some major issues. He admittedly had an attitude problem. He struggled to break jams at the line of scrimmage. He rarely broke into the rotation as a result.
But all that has changed during McCartney’s sophomore campaign. Other than fellow receiver Stedman Bailey, perhaps no one has benefitted as much from the arrival of coach Dana Holgorsen as much as McCartney. He may be WVU’s best deep threat, and his chemistry with Geno Smith is apparent.
Player With The Most To Prove
TD: WR Brad Starks
Everyone has seen the potential with Starks ever since some of his breakout performances in Pat White’s final season. And, as his touchdown catch against Connecticut showed, the big-play potential is still there.
He finally seems to have crawled his way out of the doghouse for the first time under Holgorsen, which means Starks could be a player to watch in Big East play.
PS: DE Bruce Irvin
Irvin came into the season with a chip on his shoulder concerning what he perceived as a pair of slights from college football writers: one from Phil Steele, who ranked the senior 38th in the nation among players at his position; the other, from Rivals.com, which called him the Big East’s most overrated player.
But Irvin was largely quiet through the first five weeks of the season, before registering 1.5 sacks and teaming up with Jewone Snow for a safety in the UConn win. Notably, against the Huskies, Irvin was moved back to the role he occupied in 2010 -- a situational player who came in on obvious passing downs.
Irvin may no longer be an “every down” player, but he will surely try to wreak havoc on those snaps he does play in the second half of the season.
Most Impressive Play
TD: S Eain Smith’s INT at Maryland
The easy answer is anything on offense (or a sly pick could be LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu’s interception to end the first half), but I’m going to go for a play that absolutely changed the fate of the Mountaineers’ season.
That’s Smith’s interception, which ended a drive in which I believe most people, including the defense, felt was going to end in a touchdown. That earned WVU its first win on the road under Holgorsen.
PS: Geno Smith’s 72-yard pass to Tavon Austin vs. LSU
Brad Wing had once again pinned WVU back inside its own 10-yard line. Finally, torpedoes be damned, the Mountaineers -- still down 27-14 in the third quarter and needing to change momentum -- were going deep.
It worked. Austin came free for a fleeting moment against the Tigers’ secondary, and Smith made perhaps his best throw of the season, fitting the ball in an extraordinarily small window between the cornerback and safety. Austin snared it and ran. Four plays later, West Virginia was in the end zone, down only 27-21.
This observer would love to have seen what might have happened if LSU’s offense had to take the field. Instead, Morris Claiborne ran the ensuing kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown, and the air that had just filled WVU’s balloon was let out just as quickly.
Best Single Performance
TD: WVU’s O-line vs. LSU
WVU running back Dustin Garrison is the performance that stands out on paper, but I wanted to go off the board a bit and pick something else.
When looking back, the performance that really made me say “wow” was the offensive line’s play against LSU. The line, which was dominated on nearly every play in spring practice by the WVU defensive line, has truly made a transformation. That LSU performance showed how good the Mountaineers’ line could be.
PS: WVU’s receivers at Maryland
This performance showed just how explosive Dana Holgorsen’s offense can be, and why it is so hard for opposing defenses to counter.
The Mountaineers had three receivers (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney) with more than 100 receiving yards. It was the first time in school history that had ever happened in a single game. WVU had only four games where a receiver topped the century mark during the entire Bill Stewart era, and in Holgorsen’s third game on the job, it had three in a single day.
Predicted Regular Season Record
There’s absolutely no reason why the Mountaineers can’t win the rest of their games. In fact, a loss would be rather disappointing, as nobody left on their schedule is as talented or as good.
WVU should fly through its conference schedule based on the fact that this offense is getting better each week and the defense is, as well. Bring on the BCS.
The easy answer here would be 11-1, and I can’t fault anyone for that sort of prediction, as WVU has simply looked far more talented, impressive and consistent than anyone else in the Big East thus far this season.
But there are several teams capable of pulling off an upset. Losses to Cincinnati, Rutgers, USF or Pitt are not totally out of the question. The Mountaineers have started slow in every game except the Maryland win and have had turnover problems on more than one occasion.
If both of those issues crop up at once, and an opponent has a good day, a loss is entirely possible. Only WVU’s 2005 team and Cincinnati’s 2009 squad have gotten through Big East play without a league loss since 2002.