West Virginia University’s football team is now three games into their season and some clarity as to how they may progress has formed. Make no mistake, it is still to early to determine just how good the season may turn out, but the results of the first three games suggest the Mountaineers are on the rise.
Just how far they can rise will be partially answered this Saturday when West Virginia travels to LSU for a 9 p.m. game with the Tigers. The ESPN2 matchup will feature two ranked 3-0 teams. According to the Associated Press this week West Virginia is 22nd and LSU is 15th. If WVU can somehow go into Baton Rouge and win, the Mountaineers would definitely have a statement win on their resume. A loss in this situation is not a bad thing, but a win will elevate the stakes.
What we have seen from WVU so far is a lackluster 31-0 shutout win over an inferior opponent in Coastal Carolina. Then we saw a minor miracle comeback overtime win over Marshall. Last Saturday we saw a WVU team dominate Maryland for a half before allowing the Terrapins to crawl back into the game. West Virginia built a 28-0 lead over Maryland early in the third quarter before surrendering 17 straight to the Terps. The Mountaineers did play the fourth quarter with a little more passion to keep Maryland at bay and picked up a 31-17 win.
Looking at the results in a glass half empty light one could ask where is the hope? Well, the hope is in the improvement made from midway through the fourth quarter of the Marshall game to halftime of the Maryland game. Against Marshall WVU quarterback Geno Smith found a niche having to march his team 96 and 98 yards for touchdowns in eight minutes to bail out the Mountaineers against the Herd.
So, against Maryland, head coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen decided to let Smith, a true sophomore, run the offense at a quicker pace. The plan was a success. Smith completed his first 10 passes including three touchdown passes as WVU quickly took a 21-0 lead. Then some mistakes and turnovers kept West Virginia from potentially hanging 35 points on the Terps by halftime. In any event, we saw a glimpse of the tremendous potential this young quarterback has.
Smith has some talented guys to distribute the ball to also. We know very well of the talents of running back Noel Devine, but the offense with Smith at the helm, will see Devine’s pass catching totals increase. We are also going to see the skills of Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin on display more often. Austin, recruited heavily by Maryland while attending Dunbar High School in Baltimore, was the recipient of Smith’s first two touchdown passes against the Terps.
While it is looking less likely that Devine will have the monster year rushing the ball many had hoped, his importance to the offense has not diminished. Point of clarification needed here. Devine is on a pace to rush for 1,400 yards this year, but to get him into the Heisman Trophy conversation, a number closer to 2,000 will be needed.
That is okay though, because it looks like Smith can get the ball to a number of players. One of those players is redshirt freshman Stedman Bailey, a high school teammate of Smith’s, who caught the other two touchdown passes Saturday. If the WVU offense can execute for four quarters like they did for a while on Saturday, they will give opponents fits. It may take awhile for them to reach that point though.
The offense wasn’t the only unit to show progress as the defense came to life on Saturday. Going into Saturday’s contest West Virginia was one of only four teams in the country that had not recorded a sack. That number went from zero to eight in one game as the Mountaineers recorded eight sacks against the Terps. The defense has been stout for the most part, but has given up multiple big plays in their last two games.
Maryland hit two long touchdown passes in the third quarter Saturday. Both came against cornerback Pat Miller who was in the game for suspended starter Brandon Hogan. So, the offense has turnover issues and the defense has given up big plays in the two games, but when those units performed well, they looked great. Continued improvement should yield a good team in the near future.