Linebacker Doug Rigg races 51 yards on a fumble-return score against Maryland, the highlight of a hit-or-miss day for the West Virginia defense. (Photo by Dan Estel)
Examining the ups and downs, the dividends and downticks, from West Virginia’s 31-21 win over Maryland:
Geno Smith criticized his play from the postgame podium, this after Coach Dana Holgorsen lashed out at him during the game. Neither was satisfied with the way Smith dealt with Maryland’s blitzes, yet the quarterback still threw for 338 yards, three TDs and zero interceptions — which qualifies as a superb day in 99 percent of college stadiums.
Though ball security will always be top priority, coaches want to ensure Smith doesn’t give up on trying to punish blitzing defenses downfield. The half-hour of treatment he received after the game was evidence he got popped by blitzers several times Saturday, licks that had him prematurely checking down to underneath receivers. "When you get hit like that it makes you go through your reads a little quicker then you should," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
Running backs (DOWN)
The West Virginia coaching staff concealed Shawne Alston’s thigh bruise all week, and throughout much of the first half while the senior pedaled an exercise bike near the bench instead of lining up in the backfield. Without their 230-pound starting tailback, the Mountaineers became alarmingly one-dimensional.
Andrew Buie got a taste of being the featured back, running 14 times for only 33 yards, and Dustin Garrison, some 10 months after ACL surgery, was reintroduced to the offense, removing questions about a possible redshirt. Garrison ran two times for 1 yard and missed an inside blitzer, which led to a sack. Buie contributed three catches for 45 yards, most of that on a 34-yarder on WVU’s second series. Fullback Ryan Clarke also departed with a first-half injury, limiting the coaches’ flexibility with personnel. The way WVU keeps injury info classified, Clarke’s status for the Baylor game may not be known until the Mountaineers take the field next Saturday.
Whether he was excelling at his catch-and-scoot routine, abusing the deep windows within Maryland’s cover-2 defense or re-energizing his teammates on the sideline, Tavon Austin was invaluable Saturday. He scored all three of WVU’s offensive touchdowns and made a school-record 13 catches for 179 yards. "And he was double-covered a lot," Dawson said. "It’s not easy dropping a load on one guy when you know the defense is focusing on him."
Austin’s monster day elevated him to No. 1 nationally in receptions per game (11.33), a spot he could share intermittently with teammate Stedman Bailey, who slipped to No. 3 (9.33) after a six-catch game marred by a couple drops. J.D. Woods continued to evolve into a solid third receiver with five catches for 44 yards.
Offensive line (DOWN)
After a stellar showing against Marshall and an adequate output against James Madison, this unit struggled in its first game against a team from a BCS conference. Omit Smith’s kneeldowns at the end of each half, and the offensive line surrendered eight negative-yardage plays on 23 runs. "I didn’t think we were controlling the line of scrimmage," Holgorsen said.
Along with allowing two sacks and numerous knockdowns, the line suffered its first two holding penalties of the season (Joe Madsen and Pat Egers) and had a third declined. Another ineligible receiver downfield flag proved costly because it offset a Maryland blitzer’s personal foul for ripping off Smith’s helmet.
Defensive Line (UP)
This unit held up as well as expected against a Maryland running game that hasn’t been productive. The Terps averaged 1.3 per rush overall, a figure that only climbs to 2.9 per carry when you remove the five sacks of Perry Hills. Shaq Rowell and and Jorge Wright were the leaders with four tackles each. Defensive end Will Clarke made two tackles behind the line, including a sack.
Buck linebacker Josh Francis made two sacks, showing the kind of pass-rushing skills WVU had hoped to see last season when he arrived from junior college. He also forced a fumble and made six tackles. Inside linebacker Doug Rigg tied for the team lead with seven stops, forced one fumble and recovered another on a scoop-and-score 51-yard return. Isaiah Bruce made five tackles, as did Star linebacker Terence Garvin, who added a pass breakup and a hustling recovery of a fumble to halt a Maryland drive at the WVU 33. Shaq Petteway made a few plays also, but exited with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
The linebackers were in the Terps’ backfield frequently, only to be victimized by Perry Hills’ bootlegs at times. "We still missed a lot of sacks, I know that," Rigg said. "Then when receivers would catch passes, we missed tackles. We could have had so many TFLs.
"We missed opportunities to get off the field on third downs, because they squirted and got the first down. A lot of times there were two and three guys around, but I think one person was waiting for the other guy to get him down instead of multiple people taking him down."
A prime example was Stefon Diggs’ 56-yard touchdown catch, which started as a 5-yard curl before Garvin and Bruce failed to corral the freshman receiver. (More later in the story on the DBs who were equally embarrassed on this play.)
Reserve linebacker Wes Tonkery nabbed the game’s lone interception, picking off a desperation heave by Hills on fourth-and-21. Of course, his coaches would have preferred he bat that one down. "We stress turnovers, turnovers, turnovers to them and he had an opportunity to go get one," co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "He saw the ball in the air and that’s human nature to go catch it."
Boundary safety Darwin Cook forced two turnovers, including the blitz-induced fumble that Rigg plucked for an early touchdown. Free safety Karl Joseph also made seven tackles, including a sack that forced a fourth-and-forever on Maryland’s final series. The cornerbacks had another questionable performance, missing numerous tackles and getting victimized by Hill’s 305 passing yards. Jenkins gave too much buffer to Marcus Leak on a 12-yard TD pass in the second quarter, and Pat Miller got lost in coverage a couple times. On the positive side, Miller had a sack and another TFL, though he split snaps with sophomore Ishmael Banks.
Cook and Joseph were flattened by downfield blocks on Diggs’ highlight TD, while Miller stayed shielded the last 20 yards. Cook knows the secondary remains too leaky to play like this against Big 12 offenses. "We gave up too many passing yards, too many deep balls, too many big plays," he said.
Special teams (NEUTRAL)
Corey Smith averaged 49 yards on his first five punts, erasing the memory of last week’s shank, at least until his final two punts went for 33 and 32. So, consistency isn’t his thing yet, but a 44.6-yard average with a 41-yard net will suffice.
What won’t suffice is two kickoffs sailing out of bounds — one out of the gate by Smith, and another by Tyler Bitancurt, who handled the final five kickoffs. Bitancurt was precise on all four PATs and made a first-half 37-yarder field goal that loomed large toward game’s end.
The coverage groups had a spot of trouble with Diggs, allowing a 17-yard punt return and a 25-yard kick runback out of his end zone.
Holgorsen’s offense suffered through its first extended rough spell of the young season, punting on four of five drives to open the second half. Publicly, he praised his team for fighting through adversity because "otherwise we’d be sitting here with a loss." And that would have been stunning against a 26-point underdog who narrowly scraped by William & Mary.
Holgorsen pitched Maryland as being "the same caliber" opponent WVU will encounter in the Big 12, but that’s probably only true of the Kansas game on Dec. 1. The Terps have a few quality players, but they aren’t projected to stir up the ACC chase and will be fortunate to make a bowl game.
It’s unreasonable to expect WVU to put up basketball scores each week, but the Mountaineers were just sufficient enough on this one. And that "good enough" benchmark rises considerably as the conference slate dawns.