West Virginia Football: 7 Ways the Mountaineers Can Salvage Their Season
The West Virginia football team needs to call a team meeting in the film room at the Puskar Center.
Instead of watching game film of themselves or their upcoming opponents, the Mountaineers should watch a clip from the sixth installment of the Rocky series, Rocky Balboa.
The film itself wasn't the best, but I did enjoy this particular scene—a scene WVU should play on a continuous loop on the monitors in the Puskar Center for the rest of the season.
In the scene, Rocky is talking to his son, essentially telling him that life won't always go his way, but what really matters is how he responds to adversity (video below):
The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done.
WVU was near the top of the college football world two weeks ago before being beaten to its knees. Now, the Mountaineers are at the crossroads of moving forward or being kept on the ground permanently.
Here is how they can move forward and do some winning for a change:
Accept and Embrace the Situation
There is no sense for West Virginia to dwell on the past two weeks and think of what could have been.
That is all history now, along with the national title, Big 12 Conference title and likely the BCS. WVU still has a very outside shot at landing an at-large bid, though that is quite unlikely.
Regardless, instead of thinking about any of that, WVU needs to embrace its current situation and focus on winning its remaining games.
Expectations have dropped dramatically and the pressure should drop along with it.
For the offense, the main focus should be on trying to regain its form and once again play like one of the best offenses in the country.
For the defense, the main goal is to improve every week. Right now, the WVU defense is the laughing stock of college football.
From here, the only to go is up, which puts them in the perfect position to go out and prove the doubters wrong.
The Mountaineers need to not only accept this role, but they need to relish in it and use it as a means to improve over the remainder of the season.
Geno Smith: Just Relax
As much outside pressure as Geno Smith receives, the noted perfectionist puts even more pressure on himself. He is quick to take the blame after losses and is always demanding more of himself.
After two rough weeks, including one of the worst games of his career, you can bet he has spent plenty of time beating himself up over his mistakes.
This is something head coach Dana Holgorsen pointed out in his weekly press conference (via WVUSports.com):
If he thinks that all of this falls on his shoulder, then he is sadly mistaken. He is one of our leaders, and he is a tremendous football player. He cares more than anybody. This doesn’t fall on his shoulders, this falls on all our shoulders—all of our coaches and all of our players. He is only one piece to everything. For him to be at his best, he needs to understand that the only thing he can do is take the snap and go where we want him to go with the ball. If that is all he worries about, then he is going to be more productive. He needs to relax a bit and not bear that burden. We are going to get him back on track.
West Virginia definitely needs him back on track, but also needs him to play relaxed and within himself.
WVU has trailed early in its last two losses, forcing Smith to press and try to do more than he is capable of. He needs to realize that he cannot win games by himself and must go back to trusting those around him.
One thing is clear—when the WVU offense is at its best, the Mountaineers are very, very tough to beat. When it isn't at its best, games get out of hand in a hurry.
Back to the Basics
Over the past couple of weeks, the words "fundamentals" and "technique" have been thrown around a lot by the West Virginia coaching staff.
This isn't exactly what fans want to hear in late October, but it is what it is—and WVU needs to go back to the basics and focus on what it takes to win a football game.
The late Bill Stewart laid this out flawlessly in his famous "Leave No Doubt" speech—something I was reminded of by Tim McGhee's piece from earlier this week.
West Virginia has done a terrible job out-blocking, out-tackling, out-hitting and out-hustling the opposition this season, which has become especially obvious in the last two weeks.
Owen Schmitt and company made it look pretty easy in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, but there is no question that the effort from that team was tremendous in that game.
This year's Mountaineer squad needs to mirror that kind of effort to find its way back on track.
Put the Ball in the Hands of No. 1
Tavon Austin has been the most consistent player through the rise and fall of West Virginia.
He was WVU's leading receiver in both losses and has more receptions (74) than any other player in the country.
Last week, he finally broke through for his first kickoff return for a touchdown this season—the fourth of his career, which puts him at No. 1 all-time in WVU history.
The senior is No. 3 in the nation in all-purpose yardage, averaging a total of 203 yards per game, and the Mountaineers haven't lost when he has gone over 100 yards receiving.
He had at least 10 receptions in West Virginia's five wins, but didn't reach double digits in either of its losses.
Good things happen when Austin has the ball in his hands, so WVU needs to make sure it is there as frequently as possible.
Turn Up the Heat
In West Virginia's last two losses, the pass rush has been lacking, as the Mountaineers have netted just one sack in each game.
In their two best defensive games of the season, they have averaged 4.5 sacks per game—hardly a coincidence.
In their four worst defensive games of the year, they have averaged just 1.5 sacks per game—also hardly a coincidence.
WVU now has statistically the worst pass defense in the country, a deficiency that has often solely been blamed on the cornerbacks.
Realistically, every corner on the planet is liable to lose a receiver who is doing double and triple moves while his quarterback sits in the pocket unharmed.
There is no question that the cornerback play could be better, but the WVU pass rush also needs to help its defensive backs out a bit.
This is a big part of going back to the basics, but it has an incredible impact on what West Virginia is able to do offensively.
Effective pass-blocking is what really allows the WVU offense to hum at full speed.
If Smith has time to throw and find receivers, he'll complete more passes. When the Mountaineer offense consistently connects on its passes, the tempo picks up. When the tempo picks up, it is very hard for opposing defenses to continue to adapt and react on the fly and WVU is able to score a whole bunch of points very quickly.
A lot of teams establish the run to open up the pass, but with West Virginia, the opposite is almost true. Once opposing defenses key in on stopping the pass, it opens up the running game.
This is when this offense is at its best.
However, if Smith has no time or is sacked, the tempo is quelled, drives are cut short and points are taken off the board.
Bring Back Alston
Shawne Alston looked like an absolute monster early on in the season, bringing a bruising presence at running back to the West Virginia offense.
Without him, the offense isn't what it could be.
Sophomores Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison have been sufficient in his absence, but there is just no replacing what he brings to the table for the Mountaineers.
As a team, West Virginia's three best offensive performances have also been its three best games on the ground.
Also, the senior Alston is one of the unquestioned leaders of this team and brings a tough mindset to the field that WVU has been lacking lately (via AP, ESPN.com):
"I think I'm the baddest dude on the field," Alston said after the season opener against Marshall. "It's just an attitude that you have to have. Any game that I go into, I just feel that they can't stop me. I know what I can do on the field and I don't think that anybody can stop me."
The Mountaineers had that attitude over their first five wins, but have backed off since.
Maybe Alston can bring back that kind of rough-and-tumble swagger.