While watching West Virginia put up another 500-plus-yard day against a pretty good Louisville defense last Saturday afternoon, I began thinking to myself, what really makes up a good offensive football team?
Is it piling up big yardage totals as the Mountaineers have done against everybody they have played this year - including 533 yards against No. 1-ranked LSU? (By the way, that LSU yardage total has been brought up a lot on my Twitter feed and also on the message boards I sometimes read.)
Or, is good offensive football getting the tough yards when you need them?
I only ask this because I can recall many times West Virginia marching up and down the field on those great Penn State defenses of years gone by only to bog down near the Nittany Lion 20 when the yards got much tougher to get.
After last Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Louisville, coach Dana Holgorsen was asked about his team’s impressive yardage total. Predictably, he wasn’t all that impressed.
“I really don’t care about the number of yards,” he answered. “We had the ball in the red zone and didn’t convert.”
When the books are closed on the 2011 season, West Virginia is likely to re-write just about every passing and total offensive record you can think of.
Quarterback Geno Smith is closing in on Marc Bulger’s season records for passing yardage, completions, attempts, TD passes, so on and so forth.
Wide receiver Stedman Bailey is on pace to destroy the school record for receiving yardage.
Teammate Tavon Austin is likely to set the school standard for receptions.
There are a bunch of records I’m surely forgetting.
The Mountaineers are averaging 38.2 points and 487.8 yards per game, including an impressive 6.6 yards per play - really good numbers - and those stack up with some of the best West Virginia offenses these eyes have ever witnessed.
That is in the ballpark with the ’88 offense that averaged 41.1 points, 465.9 yards and 6.3 yards per play.
It is in the ballpark with Rich Rodriguez’s 2006 offense that averaged 38.8 points, 461.4 yards and 7.3 yards per play.
And it’s certainly in the ballpark with Rich Rod’s 2007 unit that averaged 39.6 points, 456.2 yards and 6.6 yards per play.
Those are the three best West Virginia offenses I have seen (I’m too young to remember Bobby Bowden’s 1972 offense that ranked eighth in the country or the 1955 offense that finished second in the nation in yards per game - a seasoned Pitt rooter once telling me that Lewis' '55 squad was the best Mountaineer team he has ever seen).
But does this year’s offense really compare to those three?
I’m not sure and here’s why – efficiency and getting those tough yards when you really need them.
For those of you old enough to remember the ’88 offense, did you ever once think anybody could stop them? Yes, Notre Dame slowed down the Mountaineers in the 1989 national championship game but that was because Major Harris separated his shoulder on the third play of the game.
In ’88, defenses had to cover the entire field and West Virginia could play any style the game dictated – wide open, conservative, finesse, power … you name it.
The 2006 and 2007 offenses were more one-dimensional, relying on a triple-threat backfield consisting of Pat White, Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt, but again, those guys could score from anywhere on the football field and for the most part (minus a certain Pitt game and a couple of USF debacles), the Mountaineers were able to get the tough yards they needed to win tight football games.
Both of those Rodriguez offenses had right around a 50-percent conversion rate on the money down - third down, the 2006 team just a shade below converting 76 of its 153 third down attempts for the year.
Don Nehlen’s 1988 offense made an impressive 52.7 percent of its third down tries that season, hitting on 88 of 167.
This year’s offense, however, is not quite there, the Mountaineers converting 44 percent of their third down tries - an OK percentage and comparable to Holgorsen’s third down conversion rate at Oklahoma State last year (43.4 percent) - but not close to what Holgorsen’s teams at Houston achieved on third down in 2009 (51.3 percent) and 2008 (50.8 percent).
“Our third down stuff this week was better because of how we approached second downs,” said Holgorsen. “When it was second down we tried to get half of it because we’re not a team that can convert third and long because our pass protection is not very good which puts us in a bind when we’re trying to throw the ball down the field.”
West Virginia was 8 of 14 on third down against Louisville, but there were a couple of missed third down opportunities in the third quarter that really stung the Mountaineers.
The first came on West Virginia’s first possession of the second half after Najee Goode’s interception gave WVU excellent field position at the Cardinal 40. Two straight incomplete passes led to a third and 10, and then a false start put West Virginia in a much more difficult third and 15 situation which it couldn’t covert.
A missed 32-yard field goal left the Mountaineers without any points and the game still tied at 21-all.
The second missed opportunity came at the end of the third quarter at the Cardinal 6 and that one hurt much worse. Holgorsen played hurry up to try and catch Louisville off guard on a third and 2 play with a quick pass to Stedman Bailey in the corner of the end zone.
But Smith’s pass fell incomplete.
When the fourth quarter began, Tyler Bitancurt’s chip-shot field goal attempt was blocked by Louisville and returned for a touchdown. That 10-point swing made it a two-possession game for the Cardinals.
If West Virginia just makes one of those two third down tries (that 50 percent number again) the Mountaineers probably would have been looking at a victory instead of its second conference defeat of the season.
Incidentally, for you stat trackers, 161 of West Virginia’s 533 yards of offense came on its final two drives with the Cardinals protecting the lead, proving sometimes yardage stats can be a little misleading ...Quick hitters …
- Since 2008, West Virginia has fared pretty well against Big East competition, going 17-8 in its last 25 conference games. But did you realize 12 of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less? Also, did you realize that West Virginia’s average margin in those 25 games is only 6.8 points per game?
Just eight of West Virginia’s 17 conference wins have been by a margin of two touchdowns or more; conversely, the Mountaineers’ only two-touchdown-plus loss since 2008 came earlier this year at Syracuse.
That’s how close Big East games have been for West Virginia the last four years …
- And finally, West Virginia’s remaining three opponents this season - Cincinnati, Pitt and USF - were all at least two-touchdown victims to the Mountaineers last year. West Virginia downed the Bearcats by 27 in Morgantown, routed Pitt by 25 in Pittsburgh and defeated USF by 14 in Morgantown.
On the flip side, West Virginia’s two conference losses this year came against teams the Mountaineers struggled with last year – WVU dropping a 19-14 decision to Syracuse and later escaping with a 17-10 victory at Louisville.
I guess we’ll see what that means, if anything, heading down the stretch.