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Opportunities for West Virginia football to improve in 2021

Which margins bear the most low-hanging fruit, and how do we pick that fruit in 2021?

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 West Virginia Mountaineers did some very good things as a football team, but as usual it was our flaws that defined our season. This article will discuss some of those flaws and offer guidance as to how we can improve on them in 2021.

Receiver Ball Security

Our receivers’ struggles with catching the ball have been well-documented this offseason, but for the sake of this article we’re going to document them again here. It’s hard to put our 31 drops into context because of the disparity of games played last year, but the 10.2% of Doege’s passes that were dropped last year ranked in the bottom third of the country among QBs with at least 150 dropbacks. The departed TJ Simmons, whose 8 drops and 26% drop rate were both among the worst in the country, was the primary culprit, but there are more than enough returning offenders to make it a concern heading into 2021.

Diving into the details a bit, one thing that stood out was the fact that we didn't catch “50/50” balls at a 50% rate. PFF tracks contested targets and catches, and we only hauled in 28 of our 69 contested opportunities in 2020. The national average was actually slightly below 50%, as well, but our 40% team mark still wasn’t up to snuff. Hopefully the hype out of camp about the work our lads did with the Seeker machine this offseason bears true and that number jumps up a bit this year.

The other number that stood out was our receivers’ 3 fumbles. 3 isn’t a ton, but when you go back and look at when they happened and what the outcome was, they were all costly. Bryce Ford-Wheaton’s gave Baylor their first score in a game where they otherwise had nothing going, while Sam James’ in the 4th quarter against Texas Tech was run back for the game-losing score. It’s hard enough to win games when you’re not actively trying to lose them, and we need more from a group of guys who are supposed to have the best hands on the team.

Jarrett Doege was an easy scapegoat for a lot of our offensive struggles last year, and for the record I’m team Garrett Greene, but if our receivers don’t improve their ball security then it won’t matter who is playing quarterback this year.

Pass Protection

PFF graded our pass blocking as a team at a 60.3 last year, which landed us firmly in the bottom third of the country and is right on the borderline between a “backup” and “replacement” level performance based on their individual grading scale. The formula used to calculate the PBLK grade gives more weight to sacks allowed than hurries and hits but counts all three as “pressures”, so while Doege may have only been sacked 2.1 times per game (a surprisingly decent 58th nationally), he was pressured on nearly 1 out of every 3 dropbacks (decidedly less good). PFF also tracks who is responsible for allowing those pressures on a given play and found the Mountaineer offensive line to be at fault 83% of the time (9th worst nationally).

You’d expect any quarterback in the country to feel the effects of a pass rush to some degree, but pressure impacted Doege’s performance dramatically. His adjusted completion percentage and overall passing grade dropped from 79.8% and 81.8 when he had a clean pocket to 57.8% and 56.2 when he was under pressure. Circling back to PFF’s individual grading scale, that means that Doege graded out as a high-level starter when he was kept clean and a replacement level player when he was pressured.

Doege's struggles with pressure situations were made worse because they also exposed his most glaring shortcoming – his inability to scramble and make plays with his legs. The 3.14 seconds he created to throw when pressured was 9th worst nationally among QBs with at least 80 dropbacks under pressure, and his 4 scrambles in those same situations ranked even worse. The best scramblers in the country were able to buy around 4 seconds of time to throw when pressured (give or take a few tenths) while simultaneously forcing opponents to allocate at least one defender to account for their legs. That additional defender and half-to-full second of time to get open are the single biggest arguments against Doege as QB1 IMO.

Stretching the Field Vertically

You also have to consider how our inability to protect the QB may have impacted our play calling. Here’s Doege’s passing depth breakdown from last year:

21.6% of his passes were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, which ranked 22nd nationally of 51 quarterbacks who attempted at least 40 such throws. Doege completed an adjusted 91.4% of these throws for 423 yards at 5.2 yards per attempt, with 3 TD, 1 INT, and a 58.7 overall passing grade (49th out of 51).

42.4% were thrown 0-9 yards, 45th out of 129. He managed 83.6% adjusted completions on these throws for 1013 yards at 6.4 YPA, with 4TD, 0 INT, and a 79.3 passing grade (14th of 129).

15.2% went 10-19 yards, 74th out of 74. Those same splits in this range were 64.9%, 609 yards, 10.7 YPA, 3 TD, 3 INT, 81.0 passing grade (41st of 74).

16% went 20+, 33rd out of 47. 35%, 532 yards, 8.9 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT, 82.5 passing grade (23rd of 47). It's worth noting that just 17.6% of these balls qualified as big time throws (i.e. thrown with excellent location and timing), which ranked 40th of 47.

The main thing I'd like to call attention to here is that 63% of Doege's throws travelled less than 10 yards. Some of that is obviously attributed to play calling, but the plays that are called are reflective of what coaches are comfortable with and we clearly were not comfortable attacking teams down the field last year despite the fact that our short passing game wasn't all that effective. My conclusion is that this discomfort was due to some combination of A) we weren’t consistently able to provide the time required to push the ball down the field (see previous section) and B) we rarely executed the throw/catch even when we did have time (see first section). However you want to assign the blame, it was a problem for us that only 9.5% of our passing attempts generated explosive plays (20+ yard gains). That ranked just 78th nationally and was barely north of half of what the best teams in the country produced. Our inability to consistently threaten or even challenge opponents down the field meant they were able to commit more resources into the box, which in turn hurt our running game and lowered our ceiling as an offense. This has to change for the unit to take a step forward in 2021.

The good news here is that nearly everyone associated with our passing game is back and *should* be a year better. The even better news is that we have a handful of newcomers who *should* provide an immediate boost. The most notable addition is transfer Doug Nester, who was one of the 20 best pass blocking guards in the country last year at Virginia Tech, but tackle Wyatt Milum and receiver Kaden Prather are both drawing rave reviews and pushing for playing time as true freshmen. In a perfect world Nester and Milum will tighten up our pass pro, meaning that we'll have more time to push the ball down the field, while Prather will combine with an improved Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James to give us more success when we do.

Negative Plays Allowed

Nothing derails a drive like a negative play, and despite the marginal improvements in our running game last year relative to 2019 (when we literally couldn't have been worse), we still allowed more negative plays than just about any team in the country. Some of these struggles may be attributed to aforementioned issues with the passing game and improvements in that area will undoubtedly make things easier for us up front, but that sword cuts both ways. Metrics like 7.6 TFL allowed per game (113th nationally), 2.27 line yards per carry (113th), 39% opportunity rate (122nd), and 19.5% stuff rate (81st) all suggest that our offensive line needs to take a healthy share of the blame.

As for the path to improvement, you certainly can't expect us to go from bad to good in a single offseason, but I don't think it's unreasonable for us to shoot for being close to average here - something like 5.5-6 TFL allowed per game, 2.6 line yards per carry, 48-49% opportunity rate, and maybe an 18% stuff rate. It may not seem like much but these sorts of marginal improvements are exactly where games are won and lost, and if we're able to make them then at the very least our offensive floor should be much higher than it was a year ago.

Road Game performances

I’m going to throw some numbers at you right quick…

2020 home games: 5-0, with an average score of 36-13 while outgaining opponents by an average of 478-228 (250 yards!!!)

2020 road games: 0-4, with an average score of 17-28 while being outgained 347-355

Now you’d always expect a team to perform slightly better at home and there has to be some consideration given to the 2020 schedule and covid weirdness, but I’m not sure that those things account for us being two completely teams depending on where we play. Those are some of the most Jekyll and Hydey numbers that I’ve ever seen. Full stop. We were a top 15 football team at home last year and a bottom 15 team on the road, and that’s just not going to cut it for a program with our expectations.

As for what our road expectations should be this year, I think 5-1 would be amazing, 4-2 would be great, and anything worse than 3-3 should be seen as a disappointment. Fortunately if we’re able to clean up some of the things mentioned above I think we’ll be pretty happy with how things work out.