MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In the interest of accountability, let’s rewind to my column of Aug. 31 regarding over/under guesses for the West Virginia 2015 football season:
REGULAR-SEASON WINS: 8
What I wrote then: UNDER. Most everybody expects a 3-0 start, but posting a winning record in the conference looks dicey, made tougher by the Mountaineers facing an odd-year five-game road schedule. Sure, this bunch could be entertaining enough, and the defense might remind us of how West Virginia used to stop teams. But that itchy feeling won’t depart and I can’t talk myself into anything better than 7-5, with 6-6 looming as a strong option.
ROAD WINS: 1.5
What I wrote then: UNDER. The first three road trips at Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU are doozies. We’ll presume a victory at Kansas on Nov. 21, even with the goal posts from 2013 still submerged in nearby Potter’s Lake. That leaves the season finale at Kansas State as the swing week. Because of WVU’s 8-11 record away from Morgantown since joining the Big 12, and its 0-3 mark vs. the Wizard of Windbreakers, we’re not confident.
Now: Nailed it.
TURNOVER MARGIN: Even
What I wrote then: OVER. It defied comprehension that West Virginia recovered only two fumbles last season (after forcing 13). The resulting minus-15 turnover margin left the Mountaineers 119th nationally and Tony Gibson wondering if his guys were suddenly allergic to loose balls. An offseason emphasis on secondary tacklers stripping ballcarriers might help, but luck and hustle should also turn around this mercurial stat.
Now: What a bounce-back for WVU, all the way up to 15th nationally at plus-nine. (Nine interceptions thrown by Georgia Southern and Maryland helped the cause considerably.)
TD PASSES FOR SKYLER HOWARD: 26
What I wrote then: UNDER. From 2005 at Texas Tech through Geno Smith’s senior season in 2012, Holgorsen’s offenses averaged more than 40 passing TDs per year. The past two seasons, West Virginia has averaged only 21. Howard’s eight touchdowns in eight quarters show he’s capable of producing, or at least he was with Kevin White and Mario Alford burning up the outside. Expect some passing-game drop-off this fall as a retooled receiving unit develops.
Now: Push. It took a five-touchdown Cactus Bowl for Howard to reach 26, but kudos to the guy for putting up huge numbers in a key win at Chase Field.
RUSHING YARDS FOR RUSHEL SHELL: 1,000
What I wrote then: OVER. I’m buying it. He put up 788 yards last season despite missing chunks of four games with a high-ankle sprain. If he’s healthier and West Virginia reaches the postseason, he’d only need 77 yards per game to do it, Plus Dana Holgorsen has shown such a proclivity to run the ball that he essentially disowned the “Air Raid” nickname.
Now: Clearly I confused No. 7 with No. 4. (Shell finished with 708, while Smallwood posted the program’s fourth 1,500-yard rushing season.)
CATCHES BY FIRST-YEAR RECIEVERS: 50
What I wrote then: OVER. The future beams bright for sophomore juco transfer Ka’Raun White and freshmen Jovan Durante and Gary Jennings. None are necessarily expected to start, but all should cycle into the rotation after Holgorsen vowed during camp, “They ain’t redshirting.” Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said he’d like to see one of them catch 100 balls, but based on recent history, half that number will have to do for the collective. Among WVU’s recent freshmen, Tavon Austin made only 15 catches, Jordan Thompson had 13 and Shelton Gibson caught four. Only Daikiel Shorts, with 45 receptions, made a rookie splash.
Now: The total was 53 catches—24 for Durante, 15 for White, and seven each for Jennings and David Sills. (David freakin’ Sills. Did not see that one coming. But in talking with him after the bowl game, I came away impressed by his demeanor, selflessness and commitment. He’s going to help the team wherever he lines up.)
WEST VIRGINIA SACKS: 22
What I wrote then: OVER. We set the sack line only two above what West Virginia registered last year, when it ranked 99th nationally and next-to-last in the Big 12. There’s no hard evidence the pass rush will be improved: after all, 2014’s sack leader Shaq Riddick is now an Arizona Cardinal. Even with juco transfer Larry Jefferson trying to fill that void, WVU’s defensive line talent still ranks among the league’s bottom-half. So why predict an uptick? Because linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski will find more pass-rush opportunities after moving outside, and WVU’s second-level blitzers should be cagier and more productive in Year 2 of Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 system. Expect KJ Dillon, who whiffed on too many unblocked blitzes, to play with more control and have more success taking down QBs.
Now: Right again, though there’s an asterisk. The Mountaineers registered 29 sacks and the starting linebackers provided 8.5. I wasn’t sold on Noble Nwachukwu getting 8.5 by himself, however. You realize that’s one more than Eric Striker, right? And how about nose tackle Kyle Rose caving in the pocket for four sacks? Alas, Dillon did plenty of good things in the back end but actually blitzed less and wound up with zero sacks.
RED-ZONE TD PERCENTAGE: 52 percent
What I wrote then: OVER. West Virginia’s over-reliance on Josh Lambert made him a Groza finalist, though Holgorsen would rather see him kicking PATs than field goals. How does this season’s offense finish more drives despite missing Kevin White’s high-leaping big body on endzone fade routes? West Virginia could compensate in goal-line situations with mobile quarterbacks Howard and William Crest. After all Crest, in less than one half of action last season, finished with as many rushing TDs as Trickett.
Now: Crushed it. Thanks to Howard’s six rushing touchdowns and 13-to-1 ratio of red-zone TDs to interceptions, the Mountaineers finished 57 percent of their chances.
TOUCHES FOR WENDELL SMALLWOOD: 253
What I wrote then: UNDER. The preseason refrain centered on him being more advanced as a junior than Charles Sims was a fifth-year senior. Well, Sims carried 208 times and caught 45 passes in 2013, a busy season in which WVU’s offense had little else working. Similar issues exist this time with the search underway for go-to receivers, potential holes dotting the O-line, and a quarterback greeting his first season as a full-time starter. While Smallwood may be WVU’s most versatile and reliable playmaker, he’s unlikely to get as many carries as Shell and shouldn’t approach Sims’ workload. That’s not a bad thing.
Now: Wrong on this one. Smallwood carried 238 times (eighth-most in WVU history) and caught 26 passes for 264 touches.
Points allowed per game: 20.6
What I wrote then: OVER. That’s precisely a touchdown better than West Virginia surrendered last season, when it finished 72nd in scoring defense. Reasons to believe in such an improvement? That glut of upperclassmen. A less-imposing nonconference schedule. The inevitable year-to-year swing in turnover margin. Reasons to be skeptical? After holding Baylor and TCU to their 2014 scoring lows, I’m not sold on Gibson’s unit repeating the trick in Waco and Fort Worth.
Now: Correct. Despite surrendering 42 points in the Cactus Bowl, West Virginia finished second in Big 12 scoring defense at 24.6 per game. (TCU and Baylor combined to put up 102.)
SOLO TACKLES BY KARL JOSEPH: 41
What I wrote then: OVER. It would give him 234 career solos, surpassing Barrett Green as WVU’s all-time leader among defensive backs. Barring injury, this is an easy one. The ironman Joseph has averaged 64 solos per season.
Now: Barring injury—dang. He made 15 solos in four games before that fateful torn ACL at practice Oct. 6.