MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With one passing touchdown through two games, Dana Holgorsen’s offense is experiencing the kind of slump to which it seemed immune. And in a 180-degree turn from last season, it’s the Mountaineers defense suddenly developing a reputation for reliability.
A look now at the ups and downs from Saturday night’s 16-7 loss at Oklahoma and an upset opportunity that escaped West Virginia:
QUARTERBACKS Paul Millard’s 21-of-41 passing night revealed elements of why Holgorsen believes in him, along with moments that make fans wonder if he has the physical tools to be a major-college quarterback. He lofted what should have been a game-changing touchdown bomb to Ivan McCartney, but tossed an abysmal interception on second-and-2 in Oklahoma territory.
Millard’s lack of arm strength showed on several throws, though he can muster enough on a deep timing routes to keep secondaries honest. More troubling was Millard’s inaccuracy on short and intermediate passes, where he must hit receivers in stride in order for them to run free after the catch.
“We just didn’t make plays, man,” Millard said. “There were throws that I missed. There were a couple with guys on the sidelines—guys that were wide-open—and I’ve got to put it on them.
“This one’s hard because I feel like we left a lot of points on the field. Most games, when the other team scores 16 points, we should win.”
RUNNING BACKS Dreamius Smith blasted through OU linebacker Corey Nelson and past the OU secondary on his 75-yard touchdown run. Mysteriously, he had only two other carries. Maybe that had something to do with blocking difficulties: He whiffed in pass protection when Kass Everett sacked Millard to create a fumble and committed a questionable chop-block penalty that stalled WVU’s first drive.
“I just saw a maroon jersey coming up the field and he was a threat to make a sack, so I wanted to get him out the way,” Smith said. “I really didn’t see it all. I guess he was already engaged with one of our players.”
Charles Sims (11 carries for 57 yards) frequently made tacklers miss and had a 24-yard catch-and run. Wendell Smallwood (five carries for 25 yards) had a long run of 16 yards and caught two passes for 24 yards, one of those a 12-yard screen pickup on third-and-10.
At the end of a hot night, even Dustin Garrison (three carries for 16 yards) ripped off a 14-yarder against OU’s prevent defense.
Cody Clay had a 2-yard catch on third-and-10 in the first period and was a curious target on a fourth-and-7 incompletion in the fourth quarter.
RECEIVERS McCartney dropped two passes, including what should have been the go-ahead 37-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Daikiel Shorts, a week after his seven-catch freshman debut, had zero catches and failed to adjust to an underthrown sideline pass that could have been a big gainer. KJ Myers botched his only target. Kevin White fumbled away WVU’s only red-zone threat of the second half.
Those were the negatives, and in a low-scoring game, those were plenty. Still, White looked like a big-play receiver in the making—with 80 yards on seven catches, most of them the underneath variety. He also was a presence blocking on screens. Ronald Carswell also can make plays on the outside, as evidenced by his 33-yard sideline grab. Perhaps WVU can benefit from utilizing these two on the field simultaneously.
Mario Alford (two catches for 11 yards) and Jordan Thompson (one for 5 yards) made the only catches for WVU’s slot receivers—as silent a performance as you’ll ever see out of a Holgorsen offense.
OFFENSIVE LINE The Mountaineers averaged 7 yards per carry, a stat bolstered by Smith’s big run. But along with tremendous individual effort by the big back, don’t overlook Pat Eger pancaking linebacker Dominique Alexander 10 yards downfield. (Outside of Smith’s breakaway run, West Virginia still averaged 4 yards per carry.) WVU sustained only three negative plays, and one of those was Everett’s sack, which can be pinned on Smith.
Tyler Orlosky allowed penetration on a third-quarter running play and was flagged for a takedown. WVU suffered two false starts—one by guard Marquis Lucas and another by right tackle Curtis Feigt that turned a second-quarter third-and-2 into an obvious passing situation. Oklahoma blitzed Millard and knocked the ball loose on the ensuing play.
DEFENSIVE LINE Working against a veteran Sooners offensive line, this unit had its moments. Yet it’s impossible to overlook the fact OU ran for 316 yards and averaged 5.5 per carry. The Sooners gashed WVU at times, essentially taking over the game in the second half after Trevor Knight’s passing became a liability.
Reserve defensive tackle Kyle Rose had two TFLs among his four stops , while Will Clarke added 1.5 TFLs and made a heads-up fumble recovery after Brandon Golson blindsided Knight.
Shaq Rowell (three tackles) missed parts of the second half with a knee injury, leading to more snaps for Christian Brown. The Sooners had success running at reserve defensive end Dontrill Hyman
LINEBACKERS Obviously this unit bears some of the blame for Oklahoma’s backs having success—the Sooners frequently sealed off running lanes at the second level— but WVU’s linebackers also made enough crucial plays to keep the game close. Along with Golson’s two sacks, there was freshman Marvin Gross tipping an interception and Isaiah Bruce chasing down receiver Lacoltan Bester after a 34-yard gain and stripping the ball.
Holgorsen was displeased with the overall performance by Bruce, who missed the second half with a right leg injury. “I thought Isaiah was playing terrible at the time,” Holgorsen said. “He just look slow and was hesitating. I don’t know why. Wes Tonkery (four tackles) came in and played some good snaps.”
Normally, that might signal an end to the experiment of moving Bruce to the outside Spur linebacker spot, if not for the fact that WVU has more depth inside, where Nick Kwiatkoski (11 tackles) and Jared Barber (five tackles) are showing promise. Doug Rigg (six tackles) was starting his senior season on a mission before being carted off with an apparent concussion in the fourth quarter.
Rigg tweeted positive news early Sunday morning: “I’m alright thank you for all the support I am on the plane with the team safely.”
SECONDARY Darwin Cook played a man’s game highlighted by 11 tackles, an endzone interception and a fumble recovery at the WVU 18, giving him three turnovers in two weeks. (He also broke up another pass that could have been an easy interception.) Cook narrowly missed deflecting Knight’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Trey Millard at the pylon.
Karl Joseph (six tackles) hauled in a tipped interception, broke up another pass and did enough backpedalling to force Knight’s 27-yard throw for Jaz Reynolds out the back of the end zone.
Cornerback Icky Banks, repeatedly picked on by Landry Jones last season, found the going more comfortable against Knight. He made four stops but also lined up offsides once while attempting to jam a receiver. At the other corner, Travis Bell had three tackles but also took a poor angle on Brennan Clay’s 32-yard run in the third quarter.
K.J. Dillon made three tackles before leaving with a second-half injury. As WVU’s third-best safety, his presence is crucial in the nickel and dime packages.
SPECIAL TEAMS It seems a cruel joke that on the same day allegations came to light about Joe DeForest’s OSU tenure his special teams units committed three pivotal mistakes. Daryl Worley’s roughing-the-punter foul kept alive OU’s first field-goal drive and Alford’s dropped fair catch gifted the Sooners’ only touchdown drive.
One fair catch Alford made was regrettable, an over-the-shoulder job at his own 5 on a punt that seemed destined for the end zone. Alford’s bizarre night included mistakenly running onto the field on a third-down play and scurrying off before WVU was hit with a 12-man flag. DeForest subsequently inserted Thompson at punt returner.
Punter Nick O’Toole’s 45.3-yard average belied an up-and-down night. His best efforts were two 54-yarders. His worst were a line-drive 38-yarder that Jalen Saunders returned for 17 yards and a 33-yard third-quarter shank.
COACHING Holgorsen squandered his final timeout of the first half challenging Millard’s fumble even after the replay booth essentially confirmed the turnover by not stopping the game. WVU burned through its allotment even more quickly in the second half—and again Holgorsen wasted a timeout in hopes the replay booth might reverse White’s fumble. Paul Millard could have used that timeout with the play clock ticking down on fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter. That led to a delay-of-game flag and a fourth-and-7 incompletion.
Beyond the timeout mismanagement, Holgorsen’s most controversial decision was suppressing the temptation to insert Clint Trickett when WVU had chances to pull ahead in the second half. Not only did Holgorsen stick with Millard, but he allowed the junior 41 pass attempts—a full-scale, uninterrupted audition for a job Millard may no longer hold next week.