Mountains Still to Climb: Evaluating West Virginia at the Quarter-Mile Mark

Frank AhrensSenior Writer ISeptember 27, 2009

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 19:  Quarterback Jarrett Brown #16 of the West Virginia Mountaineers celebrates after a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 19, 2009 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

An off-week is an appropriate time to evaluate how West Virginia is doing this year compared to last year. Let's get right to it, comparing the stats through the first three games of 2008 versus the first three games of 2009:

2008 record: 1-2. WVU opened with a victory over I-AA Villanova, then was humiliated at East Carolina. In the third game, WVU quickly fell behind at Colorado, then spent the rest of the game catching up, eventually losing in overtime.
2009 record: 2-1. WVU opened with a victory over I-AA Liberty, then followed with a revenge victory over East Carolina. In the third game, WVU ran out to a 14-0 lead at Auburn, only to eventually lose thanks to turnovers.

2008 points scored: WVU averaged 21.6 points scored per game.
2009 points scored: WVU has averaged 32.6 points scored per game.

2008 points allowed: WVU gave up an average of 19.6 points per game.
2009 points allowed: WVU has given up an average of 27 points per game.

2008 total offense: WVU averaged 319 yards per game.
2009 total offense: WVU is averaging 485 yards per game.

2008 rushing yards:
WVU averaged 213 rushing yards per game.
2009 rushing yards: WVU is averaging 192 rushing yards per game.

2008 passing yards: WVU averaged 107 passing yards per game.
2009 passing yards: WVU is averaging 293 passing yards per game.

2008 total defense: WVU yielded an average of 383 yards per game.
2009 total defense: WVU is yielding an average of 312 yards per game.

2008 kickoff return yards allowed: WVU allowed an average of 24 yards per return.
2009 kickoff return yards allowed: WVU is allowing an average of 18 yards per return.

What can we ascertain from these figures? First, WVU's offense is much more explosive and productive so far this year than last year. It's not scoring as many points as it should, given its yardage. It was thwarted in the game against Liberty by being unable to score touchdowns, having to settle for field goals. Mistakes in the East Carolina and Auburn game prevented other touchdowns.

Also, we can easily see that WVU's passing attack is much improved over last year, while the rushing attack is only slightly diminished. Both add up to a bigger, more balanced offense this season than last. Detractors of offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen have been quieter through games of this season than the first three games of last season, but they haven't been silenced. (i.e. the two middle screens against Auburn.)

Overall, the news about the offense is good.

The news about the defense is not as good as I'd like it to be. They're giving up too many points. You can say it's because of the turnovers; that the offense is giving the other teams the ball too deep in West Virginia's territory. But WVU is giving up passing touchdowns; specifically, Brandon Hogan is. He needs to start turning to look for the ball at the end of passing routes, not keep looking at his receiver as he catches a touchdown pass.

The news about the kickoff returns is good, and I think it's because WVU is using directional kickoffs. That is to say, they're kicking off not toward the middle of the field, but toward one sideline, and using the sideline as as 12th defender. Whether it's that or new personnel, it's working.

I expect WVU to overwhelm Colorado with offense on Thursday. The Buffaloes are playing poorly this year and WVU has had an extra week to prepare and get healthy. WVU fans should feel good about the infrastructure of this offense. If it can reduce mistakes—if quarterback Jarrett Brown can channel Good Brett Favre and not Bad Brett Favre—this will be a fun team to watch.