Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflections of the 2011 Season on Brawl Day…

 It’s been an odd and frustrating year for the Mountaineers; a season once full of promise and expectations of Big East dominance have fallen flat and left WVU fans scratching their heads and wondering what the hell happened.

When the season started the Mountaineers were the consensus pick to run away with the Big East championship and now, 10 games deep into what was supposed to be an easy schedule, the Mountaineers sit at 7-3 and preseason hopes of a BCS berth depend on winning their remaining two games at home against Pittsburgh and on the road at South Florida.

Win out and hope for at least a 3-way tie atop the muddled Big East and WVU wins the BCS berth because it will be the highest ranked BCS team.

WVU’s BCS hopes are just another crazy indicator of  what has been one hellishly unpredictable season. 

We should have known the season was going to a wild and crazy ride; we had enough warnings and portents of the craziness to come in the offseason antics that saw the resignation of Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen’s ascension to Head Coach.

And what better harbinger of the wacky 2011 season than the opening game with Marshall—thunder and lightening, numerous delays, special teams problems and obstinate negotiations with hostile forces were  all omens of what was to come.

We should have known to expect the unexpected.  Games played in monsoons and snowstorms, conference affiliation madness; special teams mishaps, dynamic play and uninspired errors and official incompetence all have made 2011 the season to remember for all the wrong reasons.

We’ve seen records fall and a conference fall apart and WVU’s improbable move to the Big 12 conference is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

West Virginia in the Big 12 – how’s that for crazy? How about dueling lawsuits or that WVU would lose to a team that lost to Marshall.

Nothing would surprise me this season.

But if you’re like me and care more about the play on the field than the off-the-field drama you want to know why the Mountaineers are 7-3 instead of 9-1. 

Let’s pause for a moment and think about my previous statement—the irony of discussing  a 7-3 season as if it were a failure isn’t lost on me. Yet amidst a season with high expectations WVU has legitimately lost only one game, failed to show up for a game and gave one game away.

Only the LSU loss was legitimate. The Mountaineers were in the game, and had the momentum, until the end of the 3rd quarter when the Tigers used a kickoff return for a touchdown to end any hope of a Mountaineer upset.  LSU was just flat out better than WVU—no surprise there as the Tiger’s have shown they’re the nation’s best time week in and week out.

Syracuse simply embarrassed WVU in what could be the worst on-the-field performance by the Mountaineers in my lifetime.  The failure was complete –offense, defense, special teams and coaching all underperformed and underwhelmed.  West Virginia’s performance in the Syracuse game baffled me. The Orange dominated WVU then promptly lost three in a row and looked pathetic doing so. 

The Louisville game made me angry. A lackadaisical performance by the offense was overshadowed by special teams problems that gift-wrapped at least 17 points to the Cards. It was a game the Mountaineers should have won but decided to give away.
Yet all three Mountaineer loses have commonalities we can look at to better understand why WVU is 7-3 instead of 9-1.

In each loss we’ve seen the same problems time and time again:

  • Horrible special teams play;
  • Inconsistent offensive play;
  • Defensive mistakes;
  • Lack of leadership;

On the offensive side of the ball it’s abundantly clear to me is that the Mountaineer’s have gifted skill players but not much else.

The offensive line is at best average. They’re often dominated at the line of scrimmage and seem to have drive killing penalties at the most inopportune times. Sure WVU’s line play has improved, but I’m beginning to doubt the talent is there to improve beyond what we’ve seen this year.

Line play has also been hindered by young, inexperienced running backs.  True freshman Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie have the talent  and  no clue what to do with it. Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston add more experience,  but Clarke isn’t trusted to carry the ball and is limited to blocking.  Alston has contributed but he doesn’t have the break-away speed Holgorsen requires to be an every down back.

West Virginia’s receiving corps is talented. Tavon Austin is a game-breaker and Stedman Bailey is becoming a star with his crisp routes and great hands. There have been disappointments and plenty of dropped passes to damper the enthusiasm. Ivan McCartney was supposed to have a breakout year yet he seems to have trouble getting separation.
Geno Smith has been the best QB in the East and assaulted the Mountaineer record book all year, but he too has struggled at times with reads and composer. Opposing teams have learned you rattle the young quarterback. Hit him a few times and he starts to hurry throws and miss reads.

Maybe all the above can be attributed to the first year in a new system. Hopefully the inconsistency we’ve seen all year is nothing more than growing pains, but I can’t help but think the offensive line lacks the talent to give Geno and the receivers the time they need to execute Holgorsen’s offense.

On the defensive side of the ball youth, inexperience and a lack of depth have conspired to make the Mountaineer defense nothing more than slightly better than average.

The defensive line lacks the big bodies it needs to stop the run. WVU’s linebackers are woefully thin too and appear to lack the speed to cover backs and tight ends properly.

And it’s WVU’s trouble with stopping the run that reverberates throughout the defense.  Linebackers and safeties are needed in run support and that puts our young and inexperienced corners on an island.

WVU’s key to defensive success has always been stopping the run and that just hasn’t come easily this year.

Special teams, inconsistent play from the offense, defensive shortcomings and inexperience and a new system have all been problems for the Mountaineers this year but when its all said I done I think the primary reason why WVU has lost two games they should have won and struggled in their victories is simply a lack of leadership.

A young team is naturally inconsistent. A young team without vocal on-the-field leaders is guaranteed to be inconsistent. If you want to blame something for the stretches of lackadaisical play by the Mountaineers you can point your finger at that fact.

Teams without leaders play up or down depending on the level of their competition and we’ve seen plenty of that by the Mountaineers.

Teams without leaders are hard-pressed to recover from bad luck or bad officiating. We’ve seen that from the Mountaineers too.

Holgorsen is receiving “on-the-job training” about being a major college football head coach. He’s beginning to realize what it takes to motivate his lads to play hard every down but true leadership has to come from the players.

We’ve all read the stories about Geno’s rants at halftime at Rutgers. We’ve also seen his defeated body language against Syracuse and heard his tirade about Big East officials (while true); Geno needs to learn that first you lead by example and then with your words.

 I’m afraid the Mountaineers will continue to struggle with inconsistent play until they find the on-the-field leaders they need.

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