Black Friday Returns: How WVU's Kick and Punt Return Units Could Make the Difference Against Pitt

LOUISVILLE KY - NOVEMBER 20: Noel Devine #7 of the West Virginia Mountaineers runs with the ball during the Big East Conference game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 20 2010 in Louisville Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

There used to be a time when I got excited that the other team was punting.  Not just because WVU's offense (which, at that time, was better than our offense is today) was about to get the ball back, but because I knew we had a chance to make a game-changing play in the punt return game.  Pac Man Jones was obviously the gold standard at punt returner for WVU, and the student section even had a special "Pac Man chomp" cheer they did whenever #9 dropped back deep.  Once the ball started its descent, you held your breath and hoped for magic.  But even guys like Lance Frazier, Vaughn Rivers, and Antonio Lewis (who returned a punt for a touchdown to break open a game against ECU in 2005) gave us a threat that not many teams had.  When games were close or WVU was the underdog, there was always the hope that a huge play on special teams might turn the tide in our favor or quickly nullify an opposing score on a kickoff return.  (Aside: I wonder who the special teams coach was during those years?)

Ah, but where have you gone, Darius Reynaud?  Our return teams have been "special" all year, but on Saturday against Louisville, they sank to a new low.  I can only watch Brandon Hogan field stand idly by as punts bounce right past him for 15 yards of field position so many times before throwing my hands up in disgust.  In fact, I'm pretty sure by the end of the game on Saturday I had thrown my hands in the air more times than during an extended playing of "Shout" during a TV timeout at Mountaineer Field. 

And in a game that promises to be as low-scoring as this year's edition of the Backyard Brawl, every single yard (let lone point, or shift in momentum) could be the difference between a deflating loss and the next step toward a Big East title.  WVU's special teams---in particular, the return units---need to be able to step up and help keep pressure off our defense.  But how likely is that?  Do we have a chance to churn up yardage, flip the field, or even score off of a special teams play this Friday?  Let's check out the numbers:

WVU currently ranks 116th (!!!!) out of 120 BCS teams in kickoff return average at 17.9 yards per return.  That's ahead of only Troy, Louisiana Lafayette, Maryland, and Boston College, and just behind Wheeling Jesuit, Morgantown High, and my 5th grade pee-wee team.  For comparison's sake, UCF leads the nation at 28.8 yards per return, or slightly more than a first down per return ahead of WVU.  I mean, I know Jeff Mullen only looks at one stat (Wins) but one would think he might prefer to go 10 fewer yards every time WVU gets the ball on offense, no?  On second thought, don't answer that. 

The punt return unit is actually a respectable 53rd, at 8.7 yards per return.  Of course, those numbers only count the punts that are actually returned (a total of 18, when our defense leads the nation in fewest third down conversions . . . hmm . . . ) and not fair caught or allowed to bounce an extra 10 yards.  So perhaps the numbers are skewed a bit.  In fact, after Saturday, I wouldn't be surprised for Louisville's net punting average to be higher than the simple punting average.  But hey, at least we do something with the ones we field and aren't subsequently flagged for unnecessary roughness.  Horray, opportunism!

Also, for comparison's sake, in 2009, WVU ranked 56th at 22.0 yards per kick return and 51st at 9.6 yards per punt return; and in 2008, WVU ranked 55th at 21.5 yards per kick return and 76th at 7.9 yards per punt return.  So at least we know we have the capability to be mediocre, which is saying something in light of our current ineptitude. 

On the other side of the ball, Pitt ranks 15th in punt return defense at 4.88 yards per return and 76th in kick return defense at 22.0 yards per return.

For those of you with more time on your hands than me (and I'm guessing that's not going to be many of you), additional stats are available at ESPN.com and NCAA.com.

First, what's the issue with WVU's lack of production in this area? 

It's not the players.  Tavon Austin returned a kickoff for a touchdown just last year against UConn.  Noel Devine broke off big return after big return as a freshaman in 2007.  Jock Sanders and Brandon Hogan are clearly capable athletes. 

Is it the scheme?  Well, maybe.  But it's not like WVU has been abysmal in these areas until now.  And while I'm sure the new rule prohibiting "wedge" blocking on kick returns has presented its share of challenges, every team has had to adjust. 

Maybe it's new coach Dave McMichael.  Maybe it's the players blocking.  Maybe it's just one of those things that defies logical explanation. 

Second, what does that say about our little game with Pitt this week?  Whatever the reason for the dropoff, the numbers at least show the possibility (however remote) of WVU being able to make a play on a kickoff return.  Pitt has been bad enough in that area, and our returners have shown enough historical ability, to at least say that the possibility is not foreclosed.  I man, something has to give at some point, right?  Maybe a reverse on a kickoff return?  Or a line drive that Jock catches before the defenders can get 10 yards downfield?  Anything?  Please? 

I say this about the kickoff returns because, well, punt return?  Not so much, as Pitt's established strength in that area will likely prevent any kind of big return in that phase.  Which is unfortunate, because Pitt will probably be punting a lot more than kicking off, which means we can't blame our lameassery on a lack of practice.  The good news is that the chewed up surface at Heinz Field will likely deaden the ball once Jock and Hogan allow it to bounce on our own 30 yard line.  Every little bit helps, I guess.

Now, I'm not going to be holding my breath come Friday at noon.  Well, unless I have to walk by the Pitt alumni session.  But if Noel, Jock, or Tavon can get loose and use their speed to make a play, they could quickly turn a Pitt score into a short field for our offense.  Or, better yet, set the tone for the entire game by taking the opening kickoff to the house.  Regardless of whether it's a touchdown or simply a highlight reel run, any spark our return game provides would bode well for a struggling WVU offense, not to mention bring back sweet sweet memories of many happy returns. 

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