Dawson: Offense is Improving
West Virginia’s 4-6 record may not show it, but the Mountaineers have been making steady progress each week on the offensive side of the football.
Think back to the Maryland game on Sept. 21 when WVU had a tough time even getting first downs in the rain, let alone touchdowns on that dismal afternoon. Everyone left M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore wondering if the offensive staff was ever going to get things moving in the right direction this year.
Well they clearly have, despite using three different quarterbacks and not having any real week-to-week continuity under center for a variety of reasons.
Junior Clint Trickett has played well at times, leading the Mountaineers to a pair of Big 12 victories over Oklahoma State and TCU, and freshman Ford Childress performed well in his college debut in a big win over Georgia State early in the season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle in the Maryland game.
Then there is junior Paul Millard, who started the first two games of the season against William & Mary and Oklahoma, and then saw mop-up action against Baylor and Kansas State before playing most of last Saturday’s game against Texas – a 47-40 overtime loss to the Longhorns that could have very easily been a victory if a play or two went West Virginia’s way.
The fact that the Mountaineers were able to score 40 points with their backup quarterback against an improving Texas defense with an imposing front four says a lot about how far this offense has come.
“We’ve been getting better throughout the year,” admitted offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “We took a step back the K-State game, I thought – we played poorly at the quarterback position – but overall, I feel we’ve been improving as the year goes on.”
Against Texas, the West Virginia coaches once again showed its creativity by using running back Charles Sims at wide receiver in the screen game. If you recall, last year the Mountaineers took slot receiver Tavon Austin and lined him up at tailback at times with great success.
Sims was the team’s leading rusher with 93 yards and three touchdowns against the Longhorns, while also catching five passes for 42 yards. Sims is clearly one of the most versatile backs in the country right now, rushing for 847 yards and averaging five yards per carry out of the backfield while also leading the Mountaineers with 41 catches for 342 yards.
He has combined to score 10 offensive touchdowns and is currently the No. 1 all-purpose back in the Big 12 with an average of 124.2 yards per game.
“It’s probably no different than what we’ve done with Tavon and those guys in the past, so if you’ve got a player who is special I think it’s the offensive coach’s job to come up with creative ways to get him the ball,” said Dawson. “And other people are playing well around him, too, which is taking the defense’s focus off of him primarily.”
Junior Mario Alford’s performance against the Longhorns was perhaps the most encouraging of all. He was a big boost to the return game, accumulating 88 yards in kickoff returns to go with his four-catch, 97-yard effort in the passing game.
Alford’s 72-yard touchdown reception midway through the fourth quarter when he out-ran the entire Texas secondary is a play to remember. It was the longest pass play of the season for the Mountaineers, and it was really the first time all year that a wide receiver made an explosive play in open space.
“That was good to see,” said Dawson. “We’ve been waiting on that all year really, and we’ve finally found a spot for him. We’ve put him at outside receiver and he’s getting confident. He looks at home out there, which we probably should have done earlier, but he’s going to continue to get better. He’s a big playmaker and we’ve got to get him the ball.”
Alford shows 16 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly he is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. Although freshman Daikiel Shorts was shutout against Texas, he shows 37 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns and junior Kevin White continues to progress, catching five passes for 89 yards against the Longhorns to boost his season total to 30 catches for 471 yards.
West Virginia has now had nine games this year with at least 350 yards of offense, including the last six with 367 yards or more. Again, this is coming without a clear-cut No. 1 guy under center.
“What you want is an established guy to play throughout the season and there has only been one Big 12 team to do that (fifth-ranked Baylor), so it’s been one of those crazy years where a lot of teams have shuffled quarterbacks,” said Dawson.
“You’ve got a week to prepare and everyone of these kids has been here since the beginning of camp,” Dawson added. “I feel like any of the three should be able to get out there and win the game and I think any of the three is capable of going out there and winning a game. It’s been a little bit unfair to those guys that there hasn’t been a sustained starter over a period of time, but I tell those guys all the time that they have to earn it. But every Big 12 team with the exception of one is in the same boat.”
What has been most encouraging to the coaching staff is the great effort the team is putting forth each week. If that continues then good results will surely follow.
“That has been great,” said Dawson. “We haven’t been very good in the score zone, getting it down there and getting it in the end zone, and turnovers have hurt us at times, but I can’t sit here and say our effort has been a negative. And that’s a lot to build on. Usually, when you’re not doing as well as you’re supposed to that’s the first thing you see – they’re not playing hard.”
What this team needs to do is finish a game – convert a big third down late in the game, hang on to the football at all times and make winning plays in the clutch. And the only way that is going to happen is by actually going out and doing it.
“It’s based on experience,” said Dawson. “The season is a grind and the Big 12 Conference is a grind. Even last year … you talk to Tavon after the season and that was the biggest difference was the caliber of teams you play week in and week out.
“They weren’t used to it, well, we’re getting more and more used to it and we’re slowly getting better throughout the course of the year. It’s just growth. We’re going to have a lot of these kids back so we need to finish strong.”
That starts with this Saturday’s game at Kansas and continues with the regular season finale against Iowa State – both winnable football games for the Mountaineers.
“If we can just keep improving we can win games,” Dawson concluded.
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