Plenty of Questions Still Remain

  • By John Antonik
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  • September 01, 2013 09:48 AM
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You ever come across a bag of Starburst and all that’s left are the yellows? Well, that’s probably how many of the 56,350 who were at Milan Puskar Stadium felt after observing West Virginia’s much-tougher-than-expected 24-17 victory over William & Mary.

After all, William & Mary is an FCS-level program which was coming off a 2-win season in 2012 and was picked to finish ninth in its conference this year. Surely it would be a cakewalk for the Mountaineers on Saturday.

Well it wasn’t.

After jumping out to a 7-0 lead, West Virginia saw the Tribe score 17 unanswered points to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. Two big pass plays – both to Tre McBride – led to the touchdowns. William & Mary’s other three points were the result of West Virginia quarterback Paul Millard being careless with the football while under pressure, his fumble recovered by Jasper Coleman at the WVU 34 with 1:11 left in the half.

“A boneheaded play,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.

In the meantime, Holgorsen was experimenting with his quarterbacks. Millard played the first three series of the game before Florida State transfer Clint Trickett replaced him at the beginning of the second quarter. Trickett was 0-for-2 passing, was sacked once and the offense failed to produce a single first down during the two series he was in the game. One Trickett pass over the middle to Devonte Mathis was nearly picked off by William & Mary linebacker Airek Green while Mario Alford dropped his other pass try.

After West Virginia’s early lead vanished and its deficit began to grow, Holgorsen went back to the more familiar Millard for the remainder of the game.

“The closer it got to game day, the communication between Paul and me was better – that is, his experience on seeing the signals and communicating them,” explained Holgorsen. “Clint has more game experience but without being able to experience it in our offense. I felt a little bit more comfortable with Paul out there.

“After Paul got going a little bit my plan was to put Clint in during the second quarter, but after two three-and-outs, I thought it was appropriate to go back to Paul.”

However, Holgorsen said he has by no means given up on Trickett.

“Clint is going to continue to get a bunch of reps and he’s going to continue to get better because what he’s lacking is snaps in our offense,” said Holgorsen. “The communication, the getting the signals and relaying that to the rest of the offensive guys and obviously making the plays … his eyes weren’t in the right place several times which cost us and resulted in a couple of three-and-outs. But it has nothing to do with his ability and he will be able to improve on that.”

On their opening possession of the second half, the Mountaineers were able to take the ball from their own 25 and drive all the way to the William & Mary 4 before the drive stalled. Short passes from Millard and runs by Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith ate up more than six minutes of the clock before Josh Lambert converted a 22-yard field goal.

After forcing a William & Mary punt on its opening possession of the second half, Millard hooked up with former Alabama recruit Ronald Carswell for a 69-yard bomb to tie the game.

Then, with just 7:02 remaining in the game, West Virginia used great field position to produce the go-ahead score when backup running back Wendell Smallwood bulled his way in from the 2 with just 3:46 left on the clock.

The Mountaineers had an opportunity to tack on seven more points in the game’s waning seconds but Holgorsen chose to take a knee at the Tribe 4.

No, it wasn’t the blowout that everyone expected, and, yes, many of the questions about this football team still linger.

But there were also a few hidden orange, red and pinks in that Starburst bag as well.

For instance:

- Punter Nick O’Toole was terrific, especially the two times West Virginia was backed up to its own goal line early in the fourth quarter when the game’s outcome was still in doubt. O’Toole’s first punt traveled 56 yards to the William & Mary 17 before the coverage team was able to get down Sean Ballard at the 22.

His next punt was even better, traveling 60 yards to the William & Mary 27 where Ballard was taken down two yards behind that at the 25.

When William & Mary’s John Carpenter could only get off a 31-yard punt to midfield, field position had finally flipped in West Virginia’s favor.

“I’ve been saying this for a while now, Coach (Joe) DeForest is as good a special teams coordinator as there is in the country,” said Holgorsen. “The schemes that he’s put in place I feel really good about and the amount of time he’s spent with Nick O’Toole, (Mike) Molinari, Josh Lambert as well as all of the other guys, it’s going to pay off. We made a ton of plays in the kicking game and nothing hurt us out there.”

- West Virginia’s maligned defense played much, much better in the second half. After giving up 201 yards and 17 points in the first half, the defense pitched a shutout after the break. The Tribe managed only 108 yards in the second half with 40 of those coming on a trick play that caught West Virginia’s secondary peeking into the backfield.

The defense managed just one turnover and one sack, but some of that was the product of William & Mary’s low-risk play calling – lots of quick stuff out in the flat to the fullbacks and tight ends and plenty of runs between the tackles.

Plus, Keith Patterson’s defenses have a history of improving as the year goes along. Hopefully that will be the case this year.

- It looks like true freshman Daryl Worley finally gives West Virginia a much-needed physical presence at corner, and he was on the field during key moments late in the game.

“He’s a talented guy,” said Holgorsen. “He is 6-foot-2, he’s fast and he’s got good ball skills. The only way you get guys like that experience is to put them in. He has to beat out plenty of guys that have played last year, so the more we play him the better he will be.”

- The Mountaineer running game produced 172 yards, including 34 of the 50 yards needed to punch in the go-ahead score. West Virginia ran the ball seven out of the eight plays of that drive, including four in a row from the William & Mary 16.

There were times when Ron Crook’s young O-line opened big holes for Mountaineer backs, and there were other times when backs had to get tough yardage on their own.

One thing is clear, however, with the addition of Houston transfer Charles Sims, junior college transfer Dreamius Smith and freshman Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia has a much deeper and much more diversified rushing attack this year.

“It was disappointing that we didn’t get loose or get anybody free, but we probably ran the ball more than in any time in the history of my coaching career and I felt like it was the right thing to do,” said Holgorsen. “They were dropping a lot of people. We couldn’t really get a beat on whether they were going to drop them or blitz them, and when they were blitzing they were doing it from a look that we felt good about the run game.”

- The wide receiver corps clearly doesn’t have the explosive playmakers it had last year with Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but it does have the ability to keep defenses honest with Daikiel Shorts, Devonte Mathis, KJ Myers, Ronald Carswell, Ivan McCartney and Mario Alford.

Carswell showed his speed on his 69-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter and Shorts showed throughout the game an ability to catch the ball in traffic while working the middle of the field.

“Because we don’t have a couple of really, really, really good players like we did last year our wide guys are a 100 percent fresh. So I don’t care if it’s every snap, every other snap or every third snap, we’re going to be rotating a lot of bodies in there,” said Holgorsen. “I would assume we would play harder, we would play faster and we would have the ability to make more plays if we have fresh bodies in there.”

And that unit will only get stronger when junior Kevin White returns to the lineup. White, West Virginia’s biggest and most physical outside receiver, was held out of last Saturday’s game with an undisclosed foot ailment.

As for those lingering questions that still need to be answered:

1. Can either Millard or Trickett get the job done at quarterback this year?

2. Can the offense find enough explosive playmakers to take the football the distance (up until Carswell’s 69-yard TD catch, West Virginia’s longest play from scrimmage was a 19-yard run by Sims)?

3. Can the defensive line control the line of scrimmage and do a better job of getting to the quarterback?

4. Can the secondary cover the more talented wide receivers it will be facing in the coming weeks, and when DBs are in position to make plays, can they make them?

5. Can the team develop the leadership it will need when things don’t go right?

More answers are on the way next Saturday night in Norman, Okla., that’s for sure.

“We’re going to a place that’s incredibly hard to play. They are very well coached. They’ve got lots of good players. We’re very inexperienced. We’ve got lots of concerns and lots of things we’ve got to get better at,” Holgorsen concluded.


West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU football, Big 12 Conference, Dana Holgorsen