WVU: End of an Era, Start of a New One

Frank AhrensSenior Writer ISeptember 20, 2008

What WVU fans are watching right now is a football program in transition even as history is transitioning around it.

After the Thursday loss to Colorado, WVU stands at 1-2 and surely will fall out of the Top 25. The team faces Marshall Saturday in Morgantown in an attempt to return to .500 and build from there.

That’s a tough thing for fans to read, but it’s the case this year. WVU has compiled three straight 11-win seasons; most victories were achieved with seeming effortlessness, as Pat White and Steve Slaton simply sliced through defenses unfamiliar with the run-based spread option and the speed and proficiency with which WVU ran it.

This year, this team must rebuild and scrap to see if it can assemble an eight- or nine-win season. Let’s see why.

The defense played its best so far this season during the Colorado loss, not the least of which is due to the return of middle linebacker Reed Williams, who had an interception and allowed Mortty Ivy to return to his outside linebacker position. After going down 14-0, the defense held the Buffs scoreless until overtime.

I know it sounds like a cliche, but these defenders are learning how to play football at the Division I level and in WVU’s scheme. That means being in the right places, learning the right techniques and adjusting to the pace of the game. Once they do, this defense could be quite good.

The offense was another story. I believe it will improve through the season, but let’s hold that thought and go backward for a moment.

In 2005, WVU was a novelty and by virtue of that, was dangerous: It was running a run-based spread offense, still a relatively new concept in college football, and—more importantly—it was running it with probably the two runners best-suited for it, White and Slaton.

It was clear from the first half of WVU’s Sugar Bowl win over Georgia following the 2005 season—and WVU’s comeback win over Louisville during that season—that WVU’s spread offense was so different, so quick, so exotic, that no one knew how to stop it. It was the perfect confluence of scheme, players and time in history.

That was true for much of the 2006 season. The Louisville game was lost because of fumbles, not a defensive stop. The South Florida loss was the only one that came about because a team found out how to stop the White-Slaton spread.

However, as 2005 became 2007, more and more teams began running the spread, meaning it became more familiar to defenses. Stop schemes were being devised. I’m not sure that the 2007 South Florida loss was attributable to a defensive stop as much as WVU turnovers, but the Pitt loss certainly was.

That game provided the template for stopping WVU’s run-based spread.

Which led directly to new WVU head coach Bill Stewart hiring Wake Forest’s Jeff Mullen as WVU’s new offensive coordinator, to add a passing dimension to WVU’s offense when teams stack the box with eight and nine defenders.

This was the right move, undeniably. If possible, teams/companies/individuals must lead the times; at worst, they must keep up with them.

Mullen was thought to be a good hire as a way to tweak WVU’s offense without asking senior quarterback White to learn an entirely new system. And he may be, though right now the offense is lurching about, unsure what to do. Unsure if it should fully commit to the new scheme, unable to let go of the past, reverting to it when panicked, as it did in Colorado.

As expected, WVU’s win over Villanova, in which White threw for five touchdowns, provided no test of the new system. The offensive line’s newly taught pass-blocking skills were not tasked.

Which they were against East Carolina, and found seriously wanting. If the Villanova win was an all-in, we’re passing scheme, the ECU loss was an ugly hybrid of passing and running, with no logic or sustained success to either.

In the Colorado loss, it looked like Mullen had been fired and his new playbook had been abandoned. Though successful at racking up rushing yards—both White and Noel Devine rushed for more than 100 yards—it was unable to convert third-and-shorts and fourth-and-an-inch. This was the 2005-2007 offense but without what turns out to be the key element—a big blocking fullback, a la Owen Schmitt. If you’re handing the ball to 175-pound Jock Sanders on third-and-one, that’s trouble. Worse, if you can’t pick up the one yard on that play, in which you brought in two tight ends and called “the best play we have in that situation,” according to Mullen, then that’s really trouble.

More worrisome, the downfield passing game was abandoned almost entirely. Except for the one long pass to Dorrell Jalloh that forced Buffs defenders to spread out, opening up the middle of White’s touchdown run on the following play.

So far, WVU’s offense has faced defenses of varying skill levels—from Villanova to Colorado to ECU, in that order—but has not presented the same game plan against any of them, so it’s unclear if the offense is improving.

Against Marshall, WVU will face another Conference USA foe, like ECU, but one of lesser quality. I will be curious to see if WVU rolls out the circa-2006 offense that it displayed against Colorado, the pass-happy offense it showed against Villanova or an improved version of the hybrid it tried against ECU.

As I have said before, it’s clear White has the knowledge of and is in command of this offense, the way he constantly directed his teammates to their correct positions against Colorado. What needs to happen is for the offensive line to relearn how to block, and WVU to find a way to get short yardage, or it will end up on the wrong side of history.

My bet is that this offense will gel and will improve through the season. And no, I don’t think Stewart is the problem.


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