December Is the Cruelest Month: What Went Wrong for WVU
To borrow from my friend T.S. Eliot:
This is the way the season ends
not with a bang but a whimper.
West Virginia fans are heartbroken—not just because the Mountaineers lost to arch-rival Pitt on Saturday night, but because of the way they lost:
The numbers speak for themselves.
WVU's offense, which had been averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, managed only 104 yards on 41 carries. Steve Slaton, whose production has been declining for a number of reasons—a subpar offensive line, predictable play-calling, being keyed on by defenses—disappeared.
Against Pitt, Slaton got only 10 touches—nine carries and one reception—for a total of 20 yards.
My friend Rob pointed out on Sunday morning that as bad a head coach as Dave Wannstedt is, he knows defense. And he came up with an excellent defensive plan to stop WVU.
The Panthers forced three fumbles with their aggressive pursuit, and the Pitt front four absolutely manhandled the WVU offensive line.
The key play: On a 4th-and-3 in the fourth quarter, Pat White handed off to Slaton, and Slaton could...not...get...three...yards.
How could this have happened?
As I've written before, Coach Rich Rodriguez's heralded spread-option zone-read offense has become predictable.
The spread-option isn't an "unstoppable offense"—I never bought into that hype. It's a delicate attack that requires rhythm and patience.
If it gets those, it can rip off huge chunks of yardage. If it doesn't, it can fail.
We're not talking about a crude I-formation that can pound out four yards when it has too. WVU's offense is more like a temperamental Italian sports car: If it starts, it'll go fast.
Until then, all bets are off.
Without All-American center Dan Mozes making the calls on a cohesive veteran line, the Mountaineers have become quite stoppable.
Because WVU has no downfield threat.
The best the Mountaineers can do is slot receiver Darius Reynaud, who's no more than a midrange option. WVU's "other" passing game—bubble screens and five-yard quick-hitters—is essentially a collection of glorified running plays.
The rub is that opposing defenses can put eight or nine men up close to the line. Coach Rod's entire offensive strategy hinges on getting his playmakers in space. With so many men in the box, though, there IS no space.
Pitt did on Saturday what South Florida did earlier in the year—they crowded the line and mucked up WVU's offense before it could get going.
How many times in each game did WVU backs like Slaton and Noel Devine take handoffs from White only to find no running lanes? There's a reason the WVU offense was hit with so many TFLs this season.
Toward the end of the year season, as Slaton failed to reignite, the WVU offense became a one-man Pat White show.
Worse, the sophisticated WVU offense of last year—with its subtle blocking schemes and brilliant prestidigitation—was reduced to a version of Arkansas's "Wildcat" offense: a direct snap to the only productive runner on the team.
As Rob also pointed out, many of West Virginia's big plays in 2007—White's game-winning touchdown run against Louisville, for example—were broken plays.
Against Pitt, it didn't look like WVU had ANY plays. On the 4th-and-3—does WVU not have a reliable five-yard pass play?
After Pitt's dominating defensive performance, WVU's formerly dazzling offense looked like a magician who'd run out of tricks.
As it stands, Coach Rod now has a little over a month to come up with something against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
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