Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
Before you start winning games, you have to stop losing them.
As the 2014 Mountaineers move deeper into August, Dana Holgorsen and his staff are looking for improvement in many areas. None of those will be as central to the fate of this team as ball security.
It’s the longest standing doctrine in football: turn the ball over and you pay for it. Of course pointing that out to shrewd fans like those who frequent this website is about as groundbreaking as telling you that people with the most birthdays tend to live the longest.
No duh, right? Right.
But here’s the thing about obvious facts. They’re obvious and factual for a reason.
It’s well documented that a college football team loses the game nearly three-fourths of the time that it loses the turnover battle. West Virginia was 0-5 in such games last year. In a season chock-full of breakdowns, the one that time and again proved most costly to the 2013 Mountaineers was their patent inability to protect the football.
The truth is, things could have been far worse but for an opportunistic WVU defense that forced 28 turnovers of its own – the most by the Mountaineers since 2008. You can hurl a lot of indictments at a West Virginia defense that last year finished ninth in the Big 12 and 101st nationally. You can say they didn’t always start fast (see: Baylor) and you can say they didn’t always finish strong (see: Iowa State, among others) but you can’t deny their Johnny-on-the-spot like aptitude for snatching the football.
Helping the cause even more was the fact that many of WVU’s 28 takeaways were of the “bailout” variety, playing out in the shadow of their own end zone with imminent scoring threats revving their motor on the doorstep. In the Oklahoma game, the Mountaineers forced four turnovers to kill drives in which the Sooners were on the move at-or-inside the WVU 27-yard line. Throughout 2013 the Mountaineers demonstrated such a flair for this kind of timely poaching. In fact, at one point last year the West Virginia defense assembled a remarkable streak of three consecutive games with a takeaway inside its own 10-yard line, recovering fumbles at the one-yard line against Texas Tech, at the 16-yard line and in the end zone against Kansas State and at the three-yard line against TCU.
With 16 fumble recoveries (fourth-most in the nation) and 12 interceptions, the WVU defense was opportunistic enough to keep things interesting - sometimes maybe even when things shouldn’t have been. In the end, however, the costly load of turnovers the beleaguered West Virginia offense dumped into the wagon proved too heavy for a frequently banged up crew of Mountaineer defenders to tug up the hill.
In all, the WVU offense turned the football over 32 times, easily the most ever by a Dana Holgorsen-coached unit. Turnovers can debilitate even the most potent of offenses, but that rings especially true for a team with a margin of error as razor thin as West Virginia’s was a year ago.
“The majority of those turnovers were tied to the quarterback position,” said Holgorsen. “All three of them were inexperienced and all three were first-year starters.”
The numbers corroborate this. With a combined 16 picks and eight fumbles lost, West Virginia’s embattled, three-man quarterback carousel accounted for two-thirds of the Mountaineers turnovers.
“That’s area No. 1, and we’ve been focusing on it. They have to do a good job of taking care of the football,” added Holgorsen. “That means taking care of the football both in an out of the pocket and making good decisions in the passing game.”
Holgorsen’s track record and the composition of this year’s West Virginia roster suggest we can expect the Mountaineers to do a more efficient job of keeping the football out of harm’s way this time around. Unlike last year, WVU returns 55 players with Big 12 playing experience and that figure includes seven starters on the offensive side of the football.
History indicates that Trickett’s return could signal promising news in the ball security department. The last three times Holgorsen welcomed a starting signal caller back for a second season his offenses averaged a judicious 1.6 turnovers per game. That’s a far cry from the 2.7 per contest the Mountaineers coughed up last year.
Imagine the difference that one fewer turnover per game could make…especially considering that five of West Virginia’s eight losses last season were within a single possession at some point in the final quarter.
What if – trailing 13-7 in the third quarter of last year’s loss in Norman – the Mountaineers didn’t throw one to the bad guys when they were on the move in Sooners territory? What if later in the same quarter WVU didn’t fumble the ball away at the OU 14-yard line? What if – in last November’s loss to Texas – the turnover that never happened was the interception in the end zone thrown by West Virginia on the final play of overtime? What if, in the season ending loss to Iowa State, the fourth quarter pick by the Cyclones that set up the tying score could be erased?
Of the 16 interceptions suffered by West Virginia quarterbacks last year, seven were thrown by Trickett in 233 attempts. That translates into a respectable ratio of one pick thrown every 33 attempts.
Go back and watch those seven interceptions on tape. In fact, don’t bother. I did it for you. At least three of the seven he threw wouldn’t be classified as poor decisions or even bad throws but instead would fall under the “hard luck” category:
1) Trickett was intercepted by Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert when the first-round-pick-to-be schooled a Mountaineer wideout with a hard lesson in leverage before making a wow factor leap into the air to gobble up the football.
2) Trickett was picked off on a bootleg by Iowa State’s Jacques Washington in the final minutes of regulation when the WVU quarterback tried to connect with Kevin White on a crossing route from the backside and the Cyclones defender snatched the ball from White in one of the most athletic gator rolls you’ll ever see.
3) Just three minutes later ISU’s Washington again intercepted Trickett, this one coming on an up-for-grabs Hail Mary launched toward the end zone as time expired.
Unfortunately, interceptions aren’t like unearned runs in baseball. You obviously can’t rewrite history and wipe certain turnovers from the stat line, no matter how badly the old QB in me wishes you could. Nevertheless, this study in futility does demonstrate that Trickett wasn’t as careless with the ball last year as the overall turnover numbers of the West Virginia offense might on the surface suggest.
In truth, it doesn’t matter much anyway because that Clint Trickett
is gone, supplanted by Clint Trickett
2.0. The more poised and “take charge” model that we’ve seen leading the WVU offense since being named the starter in June.
Trickett’s progress has been remarkable. Beginning with - but certainly not limited to - things as elementary as those hand signals.
“He (Coach Holgorsen) doesn’t even have to finish signals now because I already know it. Last year I had to ask him like three times to do the signal over again,” said Trickett.
“It’s pretty cool. I have defensive guys coming up to me and telling me I look so much more comfortable and confident back there.”
With Trickett back in the fold, now healthy and armed with a firm understanding of Holgorsen’s system, the West Virginia offense is in a much better place than at any point last year. The evidence of this has been on display since the Mountaineers reported to fall camp.
The indecision that plagued Trickett a season ago has been replaced by a palpable self-assurance. It’s apparent in every rep. In every throw he makes in pass skeleton and in every snap he takes during team periods. The time and effort Trickett invested during the offseason has paid off, enabling him to take a quantum leap forward in confidence. The best news? The rest of the offense appears eager to join him in taking that leap.
If Trickett and Co. can indeed trim last year’s bloated turnover total down to a reasonable figure and the Mountaineer defense can cash in on the return of several of the moving parts that helped generate those 28 takeaways last year – big things are possible. Maybe “Turnover Margin” can once again become a term of endearment in Morgantown instead of a four letter word.
The intensity level in camp has been high and you get the sense that regardless of whether or not Tony Gibson’s defense actually is a pack of bone-jarring ball hawks, they believe they can be. The best part is they might be right. You don’t, after all, force the number of fumbles West Virginia forced last season without a relentless hive of hitters playing an aggressive brand of downhill football.
In addition to a potentially improved pass rush, Gibson welcomes back from that defense a veteran secondary and four hit men who forced two or more fumbles each, including linebacker Brandon Golson
who finished third in the country in this category by separating the ball from the ball carrier five times himself. With an exciting blend of battle-tested know-how, young blood and quality depth this unit has a legitimate chance to be disruptive enough to make a difference. Will they seize that chance?
To overcome one of the nation’s most challenging schedules and get back to the business of bowling, West Virginia will almost certainly need to start by winning the turnover trade. If the Mountaineers can continue to improve on the finer points of ball security and break camp with the same energy that has carried them through the first few weeks, good things can follow.
More importantly, bad things can be left behind.
I’ll see you at the 50.