Howdy y'all, it's good to be back. I'll just quickly say that I've enjoyed doing the Retweet over at TheSignalCaller.com this season (although I've been a bit spotty in my attendance) but after this game there are things that need to be said and discussed that can't be over there. Lots of things. So many things in fact that I'm going to run a special two-part Retweet. This is Part 1 and will deal with what we saw in the game on Saturday night and Part 2 will deal with the Mountaineer coaching situation and will run Monday midday.
We were so close.
Up 13-3 at the half, WVU seemed on a nice trajectory for a 5th straight win that would be notable only for its gloriously grinding pace and eventual bludgeoning of an over-matched opponent. They were going to get to 5-4 in conference as well as securing an 8 win season for the first time since coach Dana Holgorsen's first season in 2011. This would lead to a nice berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Tampa maybe even against the LSU Tigers - a better and more familiar trip for Mountaineer fans than anywhere in Texas.
The 4 game skid would be a memory in the rear-view mirror (which is to say nonexistent in Bob Huggins' world) and the stage would be set for a promising 2016 campaign. Things wouldn't be perfect, but they would be good. With a bowl win maybe even very good. Questions that had arisen about Holgorsen during that horrid October stretch would be answered and the fan frustration quelled for the off-season. It was all going to be OK. Heck, we'd even have some reason for optimism.
I mean look at that. How in the hell do you lose a game where you give up stats like that? Add to it you had a guy run for 141 yards and another guy pass for 280 and your only turnover was a muffed punt that the opposition turned into 3 points. Oh and you outgained that opponent 447-304. I mean seriously, HOW DO YOU LOSE THAT GAME?
3 weeks in a row..Kyle Rose shaking things up in the backfield. Dominated KSU center at the LOS,shielded him off w/one arm and made the tfl!— Rasheed Marshall (@RasheedMarshall) December 6, 2015
Before we get too far into the weeds of doom, credit where it's due. Kyle Rose and his teammates on the defensive line have been really good this season. Props to Brady Quinn (who I confess to - GASP - liking on the call) for gushing about Rose's production this year from a spot where you often do more space-eating than stat-stuffing. He, Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown have been outstanding on the front - especially over the last month when they've played a TON of snaps. Bruce Tall is looking like an excellent addition to a defensive staff that has been really, really good.
Smallwood on Howard: "I respect that guy more than anything and he’s definitely the leader of this offense." #WVU— Allan Taylor (@AllanTaylorWVU) December 6, 2015
Now let's talk about Skyler Howard. I think the world of that kid and if you want someone to pick him to pieces then you've come to the wrong place and might as well stop reading. I don't have a single bad thing to say about Skyler Howard. All I know is that he is ABSOLUTELY the best option this team has at QB (and if you don't think that you're wrong) and has answered the bell time and time again - injuries be damned. He makes plays and as the above tweet shows, is the unquestioned leader of this offense.
Is he the most accurate passer in history or the most physically gifted specimen to play the position? No. But he can't do much about that. If you want to criticize Skyler Howard, I'd instead direct your attention up the chain of command to the people who put him in bad positions and don't give him the best chance to succeed. Worth noting that these people are paid handsomely to absorb your criticism and Skyler Howard is a college kid who wasn't old enough to vote in the last presidential election.
again that's a bad read but you shouldn't even be giving Skyler the option— Smoking Musket (@SmokingMusket) December 6, 2015
Why is our QB running the ball with a busted wheel?— EERSNATION™ (@EERSNATION) December 6, 2015
These were both sent after Howard's failed attempt at getting to the edge on a read option to convert a 4th and two with about 2 and a half minutes left. Holgorsen himself admitted it was a play he probably wasn't able to make because of a hurt ankle (that was suspected of being broken to the extent that Howard went into the locker room in the first half for x-rays). Which would beg the question why do you put him in that position to begin with? I get that playcalling is a set of complex decisions based on a variety of variables, but someone needs to explain to me why running your injured QB on 4th and the game is a good decision.
While we're talking about Skyler though, might be a good time to point out that on Saturday he threw a season-high 42 passes (3 more than his previous high of 39 against TCU). This in a game where his running backs each averaged 5.4 yards per carry or better meaning there was really no reason to air it out to that extent. And that entering the game WVU was 1-4 (lone win coming against Maryland) in games where he'd thrown 32 or more passes and 6-0 in games where he'd thrown 26 or fewer. Finally WVU had pushed themselves to the 2nd best running offense in the Big 12.
All that to say that by the time we entered the final game of the season it was abundantly clear how WVU won games and how WVU lost games. And if I'm trying to decide what to do on 1st or 2nd down (3rd down is often a byproduct of those first two and thus situational) why wouldn't I default to the run?
(my ears are bleeding - I need to talk about something else for a bit)
Fox Sports 1 can't even spell difficulties right— Afton (@akw304) December 5, 2015
FS1 ... sometimes this is like public access in HD.— Steve Giglio (@stevegiglio) December 5, 2015
Fox Sports 1: "Technical Dificulties" pic.twitter.com/disQtmpFh3— Patrick Southern (@patricksouthern) December 5, 2015
Listen FS1, if you want to actually compete with the ESPN empire, you've got to get the little things right. I can forgive you hiring trolls like Clay Travis to do "analysis" and I'll even overlook the most annoying color commentator in America with Petros Pappawatever and his grating nailgun-through-my-brain voice. There's only so much talent out there and you guys are on a budget. Fair enough. We've all been there. (Sidenote - I actually liked Brady Quinn's color work a lot this year. Had good commentary and didn't try to get to cute. More Quinn, less Papadalkasdlfjsdjl is a good thing for FS1.)
What I can't forgive is crappy production and games broadcast with about 4 cameras that compromise the ability to review replay. And stupid things like this, while entertaining, are indicative of the half-assed attitude with which FS1 approaches what they do. These are things entirely within their capabilities to get right. Be better, FS1.
Nick Kwiatkoski with an interception there. #WVU has 22 on the season, 30th turnover forced.— Keenan Cummings (@rivalskeenan) December 5, 2015
One of the more frustrating things about this season has been the inability to fully capitalize on the outstanding job that this WVU defense has done. There was a lot of talk in the offseason of "turnover luck" but at the end of the day Tony Gibson and his troops decided to make their own luck. Drills designed to force turnovers became one of if not the top priority during offseason practice. It was drilled into the minds of the players. And through sheer force of will, this team has gone from 122nd in overall margin in 2014 (net negative 15 turnovers) to 9th in 2015 (net +11 turnovers).
It's telling where a lot of that difference came from - not the fumbles that are so often a byproduct of how and where an oblong ball bounces (although the recovered fumble season total did increase from a dead last 2 in 2014 to a beautifully average 8 - good for 60th nationally - this year) but instead from interceptions which are by and large a result of guys being where they need to be, reading a quarterback's eyes and good technique in coverage. In 2014 WVU intercepted 12 passes (ranking a respectable 55th) but in 2015 that total has leaped to 23 - 2nd in the nation.
That the Mountaineer regular season win total is identical to last year even in light of the work that went into creating these dramatic increases is frustrating to say the least.
KJ Dillon carries the flag for West Virginia today in Manhattan. pic.twitter.com/nm65uAhSv9— Geoff Coyle (@GFCoyle) December 5, 2015
Great picture. Gonna miss KJ something fierce next year - he had a whale of a game.
WVU's passing game need a boost. K-State is worst in Big 12 play in yards per game, yards per attempt, completion percentage, passer rating.— Mike Casazza (@mikecasazza) November 29, 2015
Ominous to say the least. And the closest thing I can find for a justification of WVU's insistence on sticking with the passing game.
That's worthy of a self pick for the Mountaineer Retweet. https://t.co/v6UdgPqnLZ— Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247) December 5, 2015
Well if you insist, Chris.....
It was great to see Jordan "Squirt" Thompson have a career day, though. His 5 catches for 127 yards should have been enough to put WVU over the top. And had he been able to add a 4th quarter touchdown that was thrown just out of his reach to his total it probably would have been. But for a senior who has been most known for his lights out performances in the spring game it was nice to see him take such a primary role in his final regular season. Makes us all wonder why he wasn't more involved all year.
And on that note, let's dive into the ugly details:
I'll start with saying that, with the possible exception of the drive at the end, I was perfectly happy with the first half. Maybe WVU was airing it out a bit more than I'd have preferred (Howard was 12/21 for 172 yards and a score) but Wendell Smallwood was on pace for a solid day (14 carries for 82 yards and 5.9 ypc) and Rushell Shell was a capable compliment (6 carries for 33 yards and 5.5 ypc). WVU was going to settle in, pound the ball, control the clock and salt away another win, much like they had done the week before, beating Iowa State 30-6 after leading 13-6 at the half.
In the second half, Smallwood carried just 11 more times for 59 yards and 5.4 ypc and inexplicably Shell had just a single carry that he took 5 yards. Only one of those carries (Smallwood's final of the game) resulted in a loss. This is important because it tells you that Kansas State never really was able to stop the WVU running game. Smallwood's first 10 carries of the second half went for 62 yards - a 6.2 YPC average.
Now look at the flipside - After a good start, Howard's numbers went off a cliff in the 2nd half. He was 7/21 (33% for you non-math types) for just 109 yards. Which again begs the question - why continue to throw when it just wasn't working?
#WVU ran 27 times in first half and led by ten. Only 12 rushes in second half and now they're losing.— Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247) December 6, 2015
I can't remember exactly when this was sent, my quick figuring says around the start of the 4th quarter when WVU offense had stalled and KSU had taken the lead. But this is important in that it clearly demonstrates the stark difference between WVU's first and second halves. We'll get back to this one in a second.
Smallwood carried the ball four times on only TD drive of second half for #WVU. Other eight drives combined? Six touches, three points.— Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247) December 6, 2015
And then this inexplicable statistic summed up everything that drove us all nuts. When WVU made Smallwood (and the running game in general) the centerpiece of the offense, good things happened. It was no coincidence that this drive was the best WVU looked all game, mixing high-percentage short-yardage passes to Daikeil Shorts with a heavy does of the ground game.
In the first half WVU had just a single 3 and out. In the second half they had 4 (not counting the next-to-last possession where Howard was held short on 4th down). Smallwood got a combined 2 carries on those 5 possessions which contained 15 plays; a 3 yard run and a 7 yard run. This is not a coincidence.
Back to Chris' first tweet, a breakdown of the first and second half numbers for WVU is startling, especially when you look at what happened on first down.
First half totals on first down only:
Smallwood: 9 carries, 64 yards, 7.1 average. And that wasn't skewed by a long run - the longest were a pair of 11 yarders and only once was he held under 5 yards.
Shell: 4 carries, 30 yards, 7.5 average. Slight skew by one long 19 yard run but again - only once was he held under 5 yards.
Second half totals on first down only:
Smallwood: 7 carries, 41 yards, 5.9 average with a long of 14 (it was a score). Only twice was he held under 5 yards on a carry and only once - his last carry of the game - did he lose yards.
Shell: 1 carry, 5 yards.
(fun fact: between both backs only twice in the entire game among their combined 32 carries did they lose yardage.)
So why the dramatically reduced workload on first down? Did Holgorsen and company panic when KSU scored twice in the third quarter to take the lead? But the Wildcats never led by more than 4 - is that really panic worthy? Furthermore, the best-looking drive for WVU all game and the only touchdown drive of the second half came WHEN THEY RAN THE BALL (see above tweet).
So what did WVU trade their reliable first half first down production for?
Skyler Howard on first down in the second half: 2/6 for 64 yards (I'm not counting the final play of the game which was a first down incompletion). That means 4 times WVU lined up for a 2nd and 10 play. Of those drives, 3 ended in punts and one with a field goal (when a handoff to Wendell Smallwood on 2nd down got them into 3rd and 3 which was converted).
A look at the average 2nd down situation faced in the two halves reflects all of this. In the first half, WVU faced an average of 5.4 yards to gain on 14 times they faced 2nd down. In the second half that number jumped to 7.2 on the 10 second downs they faced. Pretty short line between that statistic and the decision to throw as opposed to run on first down.
What I can't understand is why? Why forcibly alter a template that had proven so successful over the previous month? why the need to throw? If you tell me it was a situational decision predicated on defenders in the box, I'll answer with shouldn't you make them stop the run first? As I said, only twice (one of those being Smallwood's final carry) were one of the two running backs stopped for a loss. Every other time they moved forward and a majority of the time they put their team in 2nd and 5 or better. I haven't broken down the previous 4 wins but I imagine I'd see numbers that looked a lot like that first half.
All this pretty quickly leads to the question of why would a coach make the decisions that Dana Holgorsen did for his team in the second half? Pride? Stubborness? I don't know, but the answer to that question very likely informs how you think WVU should handle the position of head coach moving forward.
Bill Snyder black magic: QB goes down, WR comes in to play QB and scores a TD.— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 5, 2015
With all due respect to Bill Snyder (and that is no small amount, the man is a legend) that WVU loss had nothing to do with his special brand of wizarding magic. Nor did it have anything to do with blown special teams assignments or kick coverage demons. It had to do with a coach stubbornly refusing to adhere to a plan that had yielded victory in 4 previous games and all but certainly would have done so again. It had to do with the failure to follow through with a plan of attack that was painfully obvious to anyone who had watched this team at any point in the last month.
So here we are. A grumpy fanbase, a disappointed team and a coach who can officially add the "embattled" prefix to his name. It was all so avoidable, but maybe it wasn't. Where do we go from here? We'll discuss that tomorrow.
I need a drink.