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West Virginia Mountaineers Football 2014: Four Games In, What Have We Learned?

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Believe it or not, we are 1/3 of the way through the 2014 season. What have we learned about this year's Mountaineers?

Justin K. Aller

As hard as it is to believe, we are already one-third of the way into the 2014 WVU football season. As usual, time flies when you're having fun. Most would agree the team to this point has been a pleasant surprise. The Mountaineers currently sit at 2-2, with both losses coming to teams ranked in the top 4 of the AP poll.

There have been ups and downs four games in, but the level of optimism in Morgantown is as high as it's been since the Geno days.

Playing 4 of 12 games doesn't mean we know exactly what this WVU team is, or what it's going to be. But with those four games I believe that there are some things that we can say that we've learned about this year's version of the Mountaineers. Let's take a look at what those things are.

WVU will not be playing in the first edition of the college football playoff...

I hope I didn't burst any bubbles there.

...but they WILL be playing in a bowl game.

Wasn't that most people's definition of a "good season" in Morgantown this year? After the dumpster fire that was the 2013 season, 7-5 has to be considered a success. This team is definitely good enough for that. Other than #7 Baylor coming to town, every game is "winnable."

At the beginning of the season, I thought the schedule couldn't have been any worse. Now? I think it shakes out fairly nice. The two biggest tests are over, and the team proved they can play with anyone.

Going forward, the two best opponents left on the schedule (Baylor & KSU) visit Morgantown, along with a Kansas team that WVU will be looking for revenge against (I can't believe I just typed that) and TCU (sure to go to OT.) They travel to Texas Tech, Texas, and Iowa State (all very winnable) and Oklahoma State (toss-up). There are five more wins in there somewhere.

The defense still isn't "good"...

There have been points this season when the defense looked eerily similar to the past couple awful versions.  Most notably of those is DeAndrew White's 3rd and 13 conversion late in the 2nd quarter of the still-tied Alabama game, where the Mountaineer D missed approximately 25 tackles, and CJ Brown's 75 yard run to start the second half of the win over Maryland. They're still having trouble getting off the field, with opponents converting 41% of their third downs. That's a little better than last season (42.5%), but only good enough to rank 74th nationally.

...but they're better.

Just as there have been times when the defense has looked very 2012, there have also been times when it looked like the Mountaineers had the makings of a real defense. The final several possessions of the Maryland game, and the first few of the Oklahoma game before the Sooners realized they could run the ball at will, both featured some quick 3 and outs. Check out this year's defensive numbers compared to the previous two years:

Years Passing YPG Natl Rank Total YPG Natl Rank PPG Natl Rank
2012 312.5 122 472.5 111 38.1 117
2013 263.3 106 455 102 33.3 98
2014 205.8 36 404.3 80 28.8 88

Obviously playing 4 games those numbers will likely change, but after playing 1 cupcake, 1 solid team, and 2 elite teams they do have value. Even though it was against Towson, completely blanking a team, any team, is an accomplishment that deserves recognition. We've seen some spectacular individual performances as well, with Karl Joseph's 18 tackle game against Alabama and Wes Tonkery being EVERYWHERE last Saturday against Oklahoma.

Kevin White is the best wide receiver in the Big 12...

This time last year, who would have thought that would be a reasonable statement to make? White leads the Big 12 in receiving yards per game (158.2) and receptions per game (10.5 - 3.5 catches more than #2, who happens to line up on the other side of the field from him). He's made some NFL caliber grabs that have him showing up as a first round pick on 2015 mock drafts and receiving praise like this:

...and Mario Alford isn't bad either.

Alford showed signs towards the end of 2013 that he could be a big time playmaker, and 2014 is bringing that to fruition. He had all of Mountaineer Nation jumping after this play:

Alford had some critical drops against Oklahoma, but for the most part he has been exceptional. Only Kevin White averages more catches per game, and his 76.8 yards per game ranks him 8th in the Big 12.

Clint Trickett is pretty good when his arm is fully attached...

What would have been more believable last year? That WVU would have the best receiver in the conference, or that they would have the second best quarterback in the conference? I'm going with the latter. Trickett was obviously not in great physical condition to play last season.

"I made it through with a lot of help from the doctors," Trickett told Yahoo Sports. "Take that however you want. It was rough, to say the least. The four games after Oklahoma State were as high as it could get on the pain scale."

...and when he knows the system.

Just as important as getting healthy, though, was having a full year to learn the system. There's no more confusing looks at Dana trying to get the signals. No more Dana running his fingers through his mullet or throwing headsets because he might as well had been speaking Spanish to his signal callers.

Trickett knows exactly what he's doing, and he's performing at a higher level than any Mountaineer fan could have imagined. He's completed 126/175 passes (72%) for 1,600 yards with 9 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. All of last season, he was 123/233 (52.8%) for 1,605 yards with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He now owns the second highest single game passing mark in Mountaineer history, and the most for a road game. It really is hard to believe that it's the same guy out there.

Special teams is still very shaky.

Sheesh. I don't put all of the mishaps on special teams coach Joe DeForest, but at some point (and with his very large salary) there have to be results. Muffed punts and opponents running back kickoffs for touchdowns have been the norm for a while now, and the natives are growing restless.

Hats off to Josh Lambert though.  His game winning kick vs. Maryland and 54 yarder vs. Oklahoma were both huge.

The depth at secondary isn't what we expected...

This isn't necessarily due to poor play (they've actually held their own quite well), but rather poor judgment.  Daryl Worley, who was supposed to be the leader of the defense, is suspended indefinitely for an off-the-field incident.  Travis Bell, a guy who was supposed to provide depth at corner, has recently "retired" from football according to Dana Holgorsen.  Worley returning and/or the continued growth of Jaylon Myers will make things much easier.  But as we stand today, the unit is once again a question mark.

...but the running back depth is.

The running back statistics don't jump off the page - only 3.42 yards per carry - but all five guys have already significantly contributed this season. Rushel Shell has taken over the #1 spot and been solid. Dreamius Smith isn't getting the carries he expected coming into the season, but stepped in late in the Maryland game and performed.  Wendell Smallwood has been Mr. Versatile, averaging over 60 receiving yards per game. Dustin Garrison has the biggest play of the year to date, converting a 3rd and 8 screen pass for a first down that led to the game-winning kick against the Terps. And no one has ran harder than Andrew Buie, who gets every inch possible before hitting the ground and has moved his way up the depth chart.

Dana Holgorsen still knows what he's doing.

Holgorsen has too bright of an offensive mind to put a poor product on the field for very long. His track record is long enough now to trust that he'll eventually put his players in position to score points, and lots of them. The offense is back to airing it out, ranking 5th in the nation in passing yards per game at 401.8.

He began the season on a semi-hot seat that has cooled down significantly. The man can coach.

Nobody misses the gray walls.

Maybe the biggest development of the year was the long-awaited covering of the ugly gray walls. How many years in the making was this? It's been message board fodder for years now.

The new additions look great, and they are way, way, overdue.