Here we are a third into the season. We're not quite to "you are what you are" territory but we're getting pretty close and if nothing else we certainly have a significant sample size on which to make some judgments. So let's judge the old-fashioned way and hand out grades. And like any good teacher, I'll include a "Needs to Improve" section at the end to say what is required to improve the grade. Kanawha County schools taught me well.
That may appear a bit harsh for a stretch of games that has included the second greatest passing day for a WVU quarterback ever (Clint Trickett had a 511 yard day against the Maryland Terrapins) as well as a top 5 all-time receiving performance (Kevin White had 13 catches for 216 yards against the Terps). Add to that Mario Alford sitting at 29th nationally in total receptions and the depth at the running back position and you have a lot to be happy about. So why not an A?
Two things - turnovers and red zone efficiency. Lack of turnovers had been a point of pride in the first two games for this unit with the only blemish being a meaningless fumble by backup QB William Crest in garbage time against Towson. Unfortunately during the last two games the wheels have fallen off the proverbial wagon with a combined 7 giveaways. Couple that with the defense's inability to create any of their own (more on that later) and you have a problem. Right now the Mountaineers stand at 116th nationally in turnover margin with -1.25 per game. On the heels of a 2013 season that saw them rank 87th in margin (-0.33) this is looking like a bugaboo that needs to get cleaned up.
The red zone efficiency horse has been beaten to a bloody pulp. It's a problem. One of the few bright spots to come from the Oklahoma game was a 3/3 mark in scoring upon entering the OU 20 - 2 touchdowns and a field goal. Improvement is good. Right now WVU stands 108th nationally in red zone scoring percentage at 72.7% scoring 16 times in 22 attempts. Twelve of those scores have been touchdowns, good for 54.6% and 88th nationally.
Needs to Improve: Quit turning it over and finish. Pretty straightforward. For a Mountaineer offense that is racking up yards these two areas are doing the most to kill efficiency - yards don't do any good without points. And with a logjam in the middle of the Big 12 the Mountaineers will be in the thick of many shootouts - don't make it harder than it has to be.
I struggled a ton with this one, but what put them over the top wasn't the shutout of Towson, but this nice breakdown Chris Anderson of Eersports.com did after the Maryland game:
I saved this for last, because it's truly amazing.... The way the defense stepped up after screw ups from the offense/special teams was really the story of the game. After either turnovers, turnovers on downs or a blocked field goal, here is how the ensuing seven drives went for Maryland....
10 plays, 39 yards, punt
3 plays, negative 4 yards, punt
4 plays, 5 yards, punt
3 plays, 6 yards, punt (and safety)
3 plays, 6 yards, punt
3 plays, negative 5 yards, field goal (started inside the 10-yard line)
3 plays, 4 yards, punt
When you strip away everything else, a defense doesn't have to hold the other team scoreless, just keep them under what their own squad scores. We're a team in an offensive conference led by an offensive coach, so if you're expecting to regularly hold people under 30 I'm sure Marshall has some seats on the bandwagon. The 3-3-5 stack is built entirely on a bend-but-don't break philosophy, and with the exception of Samaje Perine's 4th quarter bludgeoning, this unit hasn't broken. In fact in both losses they've generated turnovers that handed the offense the ball with the chance to take the lead late in the 3rd (OU) or tie in the 4th (Bama). The offense whiffed both times.
The biggest question I have is can they keep it up? A year ago we were looking at a WVU defense that had been similarly effective, holding Oklahoma to 16 points in Norman and keying an upset victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys, not to mention the best showing you'll ever see in a 37-0 loss. Then came Baylor and the injuries and the wheels were off the wagon. The depth seems to be there this year, but time will tell on whether this defense is truly where we think it might be.
Needs to Improve: Get some damn turnovers. WVU is ranked 119th of 128 FBS schools in turnovers gained with a paltry 3 - and all of them are interceptions. Not a single fumble recovery all year and we're A THIRD INTO THE SEASON. This on the heels of 2013's ball-hawking unit that ranked 20th forcing 28 turnovers - 16 of them recovered fumbles - with largely the same personnel. I'm telling myself that this is similar to the big play "problem" we had in the first two games and things will progress to the mean.
Special Teams: C-
I defended special teams in the wake of the Maryland game, saying that on balance things had been OK. I stood by that assessment right up until Seven Nation Army started blasting and Alex Ross brought a kick back 100 yards to the house in what has easily been the most damaging play of the season.
In fairness (and the only reason this grade isn't lower) there have been huge plays in big moments. Mario Alford's 100 yard kick-return TD against Alabama changed the entire complexion of that game and Jerrod Harper's blocked punt stemmed a Maryland run that had cut a 22 point WVU lead down to 1. Not to mention Josh Lambert's 47 yard game-winner against Maryland and 54 yard boom against the Sooners.
Unfortunately the mistakes may have been more meaningful. After threatening to become a competent punt returner, Jordan Thompson has imploded the past two games. The coverage units, after an outstanding 2013 where they didn't give up a significant return all year, have given up crippling scores that severely undercut the upset bid against Oklahoma and damn near handed a victory to the Terps.
It's criminal that a team that supposedly has so much depth can't find another option than Thompson to return punts. It is clearly in his head as you saw him give the ole treatment to a punt against Maryland that cost his team 20 yards in field position on the final drive and another against Oklahoma that would have pinned the 'eers but for a fortunate rocket-bounce into the end zone. I guess some of the blame falls on Squirt, but I'd rather put a lot more on the collection of grown men paid several million combined dollars who can't seem to find any other option.
The ugly little secret with this outfit is that, outside of Mario Alford's spectacular kick return (that was largely born of an otherworldly individual display of speed) the kick return unit has kinda sucked, too. Take away Alford's thunderbolt and this unit is averaging 18.1 yards a return, which would be good enough for 109th nationally. Remember what we were talking about with offensive efficiency - a great way to improve that is by starting drives a little further down the field. This could be better.
Needs to Improve: Don't (bleep) up Nick O'Toole or Josh Lambert, field a damn punt and show me that one kick return wasn't a flash in the pan. At the very least be the unattractive friend who simply makes pleasant conversation and hangs in the background - make it so we don't notice you. Nobody likes a loud, obnoxious fat girl.
This one is pretty simple. The coaching staff has done everything it can to put this team in a position to win every football game. The gameplanning has been superb - especially against Alabama - and given where things ended last year it's astounding what they've been able to do with largely the same cast of characters. I don't think you could ask for much more out of this staff than what we've seen.
Was the clock-management at the end of the Maryland game perfect? Maybe not. But on balance, these guys have done a good job getting this team prepared to play. There's room to improve though.
Needs to Improve:
In the immortal words of the Mortal Kombat voice-over guy, "finish him." Whether it be the development of a running game to eat clock, the creating of some turnovers, pulling off a mask to breathe fire or simple lightning hands, this team needs to learn how to finish. It's the last piece of the puzzle dating back to 2013. Sure Alabama and Oklahoma were great and yeah it felt good to hang with a pair of top 4 teams for most of the game, but at the end of the day those were a pair of losses where WVU didn't make enough plays when it had to. With all due respect to Kansas and their one-game win streak against WVU, I've got that trip to Lubbock to play Texas Tech circled in big blue and gold marker. That's a team WVU needs to beat and if this 2014 squad is as good as we think they are and as good as i think they think they are, that's a must-win game.
So there you have it. We're 4/12 of the way in and in pretty good shape. A lot to feel good about, some good things to build on but plenty of room for growth. Nobody wants to peak in September anyway. Let's see what they've got.