The last time we saw the Mountaineers at Milan Puskar Stadium, all the talk was about West Virginia’s high-powered offense and the added downfield element. It was August 30, the season opener for WVU against Villanova, and Pat White had just set a new Mountaineer Field record with five touchdown passes in the 48-21 win over the Wildcats.
Nearly a month later, the Mountaineers will play their first home game since opening weekend. Just as it was after that game, much of the talk is still surrounding the offense. What has changed since that time is the tone of the conversation. Optimism and sky-high expectations have been tempered in the wake of back-to-back defeats against East Carolina and Colorado. In those two games, the Mountaineers managed a combined 17 points.
“We have the best quarterback, I think, in the country back. Two of our running backs from last year are in the NFL now. The guy who caught all of our bubble screens last year is on the practice squad in Minnesota. Do we miss them? Yeah, we miss them,” said head coach Bill Stewart on Tuesday when asked about the struggles of his offense. “We just have to get better. We have young guys and we need to get better.”
While the point production – or lack thereof – is certainly alarming, it is the manner in which the Mountaineers are being kept out of the end zone that has many scratching their heads. In essence, the bugaboos have all been smaller-scale mistakes which, when compounded with other minor mistakes, have led to big troubles for West Virginia’s offense.
In the loss at Colorado, the most notable of these mistakes was a lack of productivity on third down. West Virginia converted just two of its 10 third-down opportunities, including a paltry zero for five on third down and less than two yards.
After reviewing the film, Stewart and the coaching staff seem to have pinpointed what or who was responsible for the third down and short struggles in Boulder.
“I saw a couple of guys miss blocks on quarterback sneaks,” Stewart said. “That disturbed me, and that will be rectified today in full pads. I watched a couple of young guys at the point of attack fall, slip and get beat. That was on a third and one towards the end of the game that frustrated me a little bit.
The good news in this case is that the mistakes have not been caused by a lack of effort, but rather by a lack of execution. Then again, if the execution isn’t good enough, the effort likely won’t be enough to overcome the mistakes.
“Our guys learned a tough lesson in life: just because you give it all your effort and outstrain your opponent doesn’t always mean that you beat your opponent,” Stewart said. “You can beat yourselves if you miss opportunities. That happens. It’s why you practice to get better. You don’t berate them, and we aren’t going to sell them down the river. They’re ours, we love them, and we’re going to keep coaching them hard.”
After two consecutive losses, there is little doubt that players and coaches alike are searching for answers.
“It makes them sick. It makes them as sick as they could be,” Stewart said of his team’s mood following the loss at Colorado. “All I saw was a bunch of tears and hurt. When (Pat White) comes out an into the locker room and he’s crying with about 20 other guys, that’s hurt. That’s what I saw and that’s what I live with. It’s what I think about and what I carry with me every day, 24/7. It’s my job to make that better and that’s what we’re working on.
Finding those answers began on Sunday night with practice, and will continue throughout the week in preparation for the Thundering Herd, which owns an impressive 3-1 start following this past weekend’s win at Southern Miss.
“You work in practice. You work in practice to repeat those plays and then you get ready for the opponent that you’re up against,” Stewart said. “We’re working on our short yardage as hard as we can. We’re not going to panic; I’m not in panic mode. We’re just going to work as hard as we can.”
And if you take Stewart at his word, results on offense in reality aren’t that far away.
“Very close. Very, very close. Gut-wrenchingly close,” Stewart said. “They see it on film. We’re not going to change a whole lot. We’re going to keep doing what we do.”