Jumbo Backfield Effective

  • By John Antonik
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  • November 26, 2010 09:21 PM
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More game coverage: Pitt's Turnovers Lift WVU | ESPN3.com Replay

PITTSBURGH – Judging from Friday’s 35-point explosion that included the first fourth quarter touchdown in Big East play this year, it looked like West Virginia's offense took a big step forward against Pitt Friday afternoon at Heinz Field.

Two things were apparent against the Panthers: One, West Virginia was much more effective when it got into the red zone, scoring touchdowns on four of five opportunities (a fifth try was basically a wash because Coach Bill Stewart chose to run the ball up the middle four straight times with a 25-point lead) and, two, West Virginia showed it has the ability to pass protect.

On at least two different occasions, quarterback Geno Smith could have pulled out a lawn chair and waited for his receivers to get open, once when he scanned the entire field before locating Tavon Austin in the corner of the end zone for a big third quarter touchdown, and a second time when he hit Jock Sanders for a 38-yard third down pass play that set up West Virginia’s fifth score.

Offensive line coach Dave Johnson addressed both of those situations Friday after the game.

“Anytime you’re down inside the five you want to get it in as fast as possible because bad things happen as we’ve seen earlier this season,” Johnson said of Ryan Clarke’s pair of 2-yard touchdown runs. “That was good. How good? I won’t know until I see the tape and really look at it closely. But just coming off the field you feel pretty good about it.”

As for the improved pass protection, Johnson offered a somewhat complex explanation because pass protection is a somewhat complex task.

“You have backs that are helping you on chips, you have a quarterback that will maybe call a slide or get you into the protection that is advantageous to the defensive front that they have aligned, there are receivers running routes on time - there are a lot of factors involved,” Johnson explained. “I think we get too much credit when he gets a lot of time and we get too much criticism when there’s pressure because it is so multifaceted. There are a lot of things going on at one time on any protection.”

Having a pair of 225-pound backs in the backfield at the same time as extra protectors is certainly helpful. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke both saw considerably more action against the Panthers and they gave West Virginia a look (and attitude) on offense that it has been lacking at times this year.

In addition to protecting their quarterback’s backside, Alston and Clarke also helped the Mountaineers avoid a lot of long yardage situations today by getting positive yards on plays that weren’t necessarily there - instead of perhaps hunting for a big play and losing three or four yards because of it. It is clear to anyone who has watched Jeff Mullen’s offense for the last three years that it works much more effectively when it stays on schedule, and Alston and Clarke helped keep the Mountaineers on schedule, particularly in the second half.

Another boost was the option runs that Mullen sprinkled in with Smith to counter some of the things Pitt likes to do with its defensive front. Johnson thought the option really gave Pitt’s defense some problems.

“They have to make a decision of who they are going to cover and we have different types of option deals in there. So we were hitting them with different combinations and that’s to Coach Mullen’s credit,” Johnson said. “He was mixing up the calls. It maybe looks similar to all of you but it is different. There are some different intricacies in there when we were running those zone plays – different footwork and different targets we were trying to double-team. It kept them off-balance. They weren’t able to clue in to which particular one we were running.”

Johnson thought West Virginia’s jumbo look in the backfield with Alston and Clarke also opened up other things later with Noel Devine and Tavon Austin when the linebackers and safeties were forced to come up and respect the inside running game.

“Anytime you can run in between the tackles when you have bodies like that that’s a good thing,” Johnson said. “Then you hit them with (Devine) and he doesn’t see something and he reverses field and gets a big play there, too. It was a good job today of Coach Mullen just mixing it up and giving the ball to different guys. They are a very good defense. They pursue hard. They run to the ball so we had to keep it mixed up.”

And when that happens and then you mix in a little play action to Austin, Sanders and Brad Starks, voila, your offense becomes much more dynamic.

“Now the defensive linemen, when they come off the ball and we can fit them in our play action, we’re a little bit more aggressive in our pass protection and when we’re able to do that it keeps them on the heels,” Johnson said. “So now when you do have to throw the ball in a drop back situation that helps you – it takes some of the zip out of their feet.”

West Virginia certainly took the zip out of the Panthers feet on Friday afternoon - or at least some bite out of their growl.