College Football

NCB 2015 CFB Previews: West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia recovered from 2007, and now has to recover from 2012.

The 2012 Geno Smith-led Mountaineers were supposed to ride the momentum of a 70-33 thrashing of Clemson into the Big 12, but the offense wrote checks the defense couldn’t cash and West Virginia tumbled to a 7-6 record.

2014 West Virginia gave some of the best teams in the country all they could handle. Against #2 Alabama, #4 Oklahoma, #4 Baylor, #10 TCU, and #12 Kansas State, an efficient passing attack (orchestrated by Clint Trickett, Kevin Smith, and Mario Alford) and tough defense allowed the Mountaineers to battle within an average margin of just three points, and ruined Baylor’s shot at a national title by dominating them much more thoroughly than the two-touchdown margin might imply.

Maybe they got worn out. Trickett got hurt against Kansas State and Skyler Howard took over. Howard threw eight touchdowns and no picks but only completed 51% of his passes, and the Mountaineers lost four of their last five.

First nine games: West Virginia 36.1, Opponents 25.7 (6-3)
Last four games: Opponents 32, West Virginia 27.5 (1-3)

Seems a bit unreasonable to suggest Dana Holgorsen might be a hot seat coach entering into 2015, but after a 10-3 start and that Orange Bowl, his three subsequent teams are just 18-20. 2014’s squad probably would have won the old Big East, but times are tougher now. Even with a defense that looks to be stingy, an offensive reset and a vicious road slate all but guarantees a rough year for Holgo.

Trickett retired from football after concussion issues and got into coaching, so it’s Howard’s show now. In an ideal world the new quarterback would have some reliable targets to help him break in, but Smith and Alford are gone to the NFL.

At 14 yards per completion, Howard has the big-play stuff figured out, but his 45% completion rate on second and third down has got to improve . . . but he took only four sacks, and (in albeit limited action) ran for 9.6 yards per carry. If he can maintain even a chunk of that he’ll lead the Mountaineers in rushing. West Virginia returns its two leading rushers from 2014 in Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood, great on a handful of third down carries and pretty unspectacular on the rest (64th out of 128th in rushing efficiency, dead center of FBS teams) and utterly lacking in big plays, even against defenses that were pretty much sold out against the pass.

And now, how to replace White, only one of the greatest college wide receivers of all time. The nature of an Air Raid system means lot of guys get targeted, but 2,300 yards of production don’t just magically reappear. To replace them the Mountaineers will look to slot receivers Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts. Thompson was almost running back-reliable, catching 70% of the passes that went his way, and Shorts was a little more explosive at 14.2 yards per catch. But who’s on the outside spots? Shelton Gibson and Vernon Davis are the next men up at the X and Z positions. Gibson is a former four star recruit, and Davis’ page on reads “Finished with season-high 26 all purpose yards against Kansas.” West Virginia added White’s brother Ka’Raun White out of junior college, maybe White’s freakish talent runs in the family.

There’s no getting around it: barring a surprise, the offense will be taking a step back in 2015. Fortunately for the Mountaineers, there are two reasons for optimism. First, everybody’s young, and youth turns into experience. Second, the defense might be strong enough to bail the offense out.

The Mountaineer defense allowed 4.4 points per trip in the red zone, good for fourth in the nation when adjusted for competition . . . and pretty much explains why West Virginia was able to shut down Baylor and nearly shut down Alabama and TCU. They also return almost everybody.

Safety-turned-SAM-turned-WILL linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski was fifth in the conference in tackles in 2014 and he returns to lead a scary back seven. Typically in these things I pick up on one or two particularly explosive players and focus on them as difference makers . . . but almost everybody in West Virginia’s secondary was equally good. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a unit with the statistics so equally spread. Nine of the ten contributors in this ball-hawking secondary return. And the fact that they managed to accomplish this with the defensive line getting essentially zero pass rush (107th in standard down sack rates, 113th in passing downs) makes it all the more remarkable. Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon are about as good a pair of safeties as you’re likely to find (four picks, ten passes broken up, three forced fumbles). Cornerback stats can be kind of misleading: oftentimes a corner with great stats and a huge number of tackles amasses those stats because they’re weak in coverage and get picked on a lot . . . not the case with Daryl Worley, who picked off three passes and broke up four passes while also locking down receivers.

They’re gonna be really good again, one of the best in the Big 12.

West Virginia returns a solid punter in Nick O’Toole, who pinned opponents inside the 20 on four out of five kicks, and Josh Lambert, who was pretty much automatic on field goals inside of 40 yards.

But where’s the return game? The aforementioned receivers Jordan Thompson and Vernon Davis were good for three or four yards per punt, and Shelton Gibson averaged just under twenty yards on kickoffs. They played great kick defense but with so many guys recruited for their ability to run in space, it’s odd they can’t find someone more effective at returning kicks.

Holgo is a solid offensive mind. Despite the turnover on offense it won’t take them too long to get back on track . . . and until they do, can the defense carry them? They’ll have to, because the Mountaineers rotate their way into a terrifying October schedule. At Oklahoma. At Baylor. At TCU, on a Thursday. And Georgia Southern in the nonconference is no slouch either. I don’t anticipate the Mountaineers will struggle to gain bowl eligibility, but West Virginia fans shouldn’t be too disappointed to see another seven-win season.

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