MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Like a cursed spot sure to inflict braincramps and misjudgments, the 3-yard line at the north end of Mountaineer Field became a landmark of much consternation and cussing for West Virginia’s special teams on Saturday.
It was the destination to which Ronald Carswell retreated on his second-half kick return. It was the same point where Jordan Thompson back-pedaled into a fair catch even as some 50,000-plus home fans bellowed “Nooooooooooo!”
Through five games, West Virginia ranks 110th nationally in kick returns (18.06 -ard average) and 102nd on punt runbacks (4.0 yards). Special teams coach Joe DeForest has not spoken to the media since the Sports Illustrated scandal broke three weeks ago alleging player payments at Oklahoma State, but WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen acknowledged what everyone can plainly see—that the return game has been inadequate.
How peeved is Holgorsen with kick returners who too frequently leave the offense pinned inside its 25?
“I think our kick returners are garbage,” he said.
“It’s not the front line. A lot of times guys catch it and run it and get drilled because of (poor) blocking. But the front-line people, the blocking, the scheme, they’re all good. We have yet to find guys who can catch it and run.
Though Carswell owns West Virginia’s longest kick return of the season at 36 yards, he has bobbled several catches near the goal line, allowing opposing coverage units to converge with every wasted millisecond. After Carswell’s ground-giving miscue to open the second half against OSU, DeForest sent out Wendell Smallwood and Charles Sims on the next kickoff.
On four returns this season, Smallwood has averaged 20.5 yards, while Sims has only two runbacks for 15.5 yards. Mario Alford, whose punt-return fumble at Oklahoma led to the Sooners’ lone touchdown, has averaged 15 yards on three kick returns.
“We had open auditions on Sunday night,” Holgorsen said. “I would anticipate a couple of new people back there.”
While WVU has lost two fumbles on botched punt returns, the low point Saturday involved not a drop but Thompson losing awareness of field position and fair-catching a punt that should have gone for a touchback.
“Bone-headed,” said receivers coach Lonnie Galloway, who gave Thompson a world-class chewing on the sideline. “When you’re on the 10 as a punt returner, don’t back up. He knew that and he gave me some excuse, so we dealt with it in a calm way.”
WVU clung to a slim a lead over OSU when field-goal kicker Josh Lambert had a 50-yarder blocked and a 34-yard attempt sail wide right. Yet the redshirt freshman regrouped in the fourth quarter for successful tries from 27 and 34 yards.
“He probably did so well, because I didn’t yell at him,” Holgorsen admitted. “I would’ve yelled at him a year ago, but I promised coach (Joe) DeForest that I wouldn’t talk to the kickers.”
Holgorsen wasn’t joking about his vow of silence: “I did promise DeForest I wouldn’t talk to the kickers, and I haven’t.”