Last season, West Virginia lost two games early and often struggled on offense throughout the season because they were having some real difficulties converting on third down and short yardage situations.
Along with the inability to make the critical, short third-down conversions, the Mountaineers were desperately lacking a power running game.
What a difference a year makes!
Going into this season, coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen recognized this deficiency on the part of their offense and made its remedy one of their top priorities.
The two of them made short-yardage situations a huge priority in spring ball and also in fall practice.
Obviously, they have corrected the problem—and it shows!
Currently, the Mountaineers are leading the Big East Conference in third-down efficiency, converting 32-of-63 attempts in five games.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Clarke has proven to be a nearly unstoppable force in the running game, scoring five touchdowns in 19 carries.
In an ideal world, Clarke was supposed to be the Mountaineers’ big power fullback last year. However, this past year, the man who was supposed to replace fullback Owen Schmitt was only big!
The coaches were disappointed when Clarke came to camp overweight and out of shape.
But to his credit, Clarke has done the things he needed to do in the weight room and at the training table. At approximately 230 pounds, the tough fullback strongly took the ball into the end zone on his first carry.
Not only is Clarke’s presence making a difference, I also think that the Mountaineers' relatively young offensive line is doing a much better job of pass and run blocking than they did in 2008.
I also believe the offensive line’s improvement in run blocking is apparent in Noel Devine’s recent success in going up the middle, combined with his skills out on the perimeter.
That should present the WVU and Marshall fans with a striking contrast in this weekend’s Friends of Coal Bowl.
Going into West Virginia’s game with Marshall, it is quite likely that third-down conversions may be the critical difference in the final score.
While the Mountaineers have been excellent in third-down conversions, the Thundering Herd defense has experienced some real difficulties in getting off the field in these same crucial situations.
In their most recent game, Tulane was greatly successful in short-yardage situations, converting 11-of-17 third downs against Marshall.
If Marshall allows West Virginia this same level of success on third down, then it could be an extremely long day for the Thundering Herd!
Along with their struggles on stopping their opposition on third down, Marshall has also given up significant yardage on defense.
Virginia Tech scored 52 points on Marshall and had over 600 yards of total offense. In addition, Tulane also had over 400 yards of offense against them this past week.
Clearly, the Mountaineers also have an explosive offense.
If the Marshall defense repeatedly allows West Virginia to make their third-down conversions, then there will be no way for them to limit the Mountaineers on offense.
Third-down conversions may be the most crucial statistic you will see in this football game. On that note, I think the Mountaineers win this game easily.
In short, the outcome of this game may come down to third down.