MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia allows the second-fewest sacks in the Big 12, testament to its offensive staff placing an offseason emphasis on improving pass protection.
So how worrisome was TCU sacking Skyler Howard five times Saturday?
After winning comfortably 34-10 to remain unbeaten, coach Dana Holgorsen sounded mildly alarmed: “I will be the first to admit we were pretty average on offense last week. TCU probably had something to do with that.”
Indeed, the Frogs defense tops the conference at 3.86 sacks per game, meaning West Virginia may not encounter a better pass rush all season. The next step: Identifying the factors underlying those protection breakdowns.
“A couple of them were on Skyler, a couple of them were on coverage,” Holgorsen said. “TCU is as good as anyone in the country at that.”
Holgorsen’s respect for Gary Patterson’s disruptive scheme became the reason “why we didn’t throw it a ton.” Despite TCU’s secondary clamping down on receivers, Howard completed 16-of-23 passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns — his personal best through 15 conference games and one off his career-high overall.
West Virginia ran it 48 times against the Frogs, making for what appeared to be a 2-to-1 run-pass ratio. Adjusting for sacks and scrambles, the play-calling was less lopsided — 30 designed passes against 41 runs.
Two sacks stemmed from intentional grounding penalties on Howard. The most costly resulted in a 16-yard loss knocking West Virginia out of field-goal range before halftime. Though Holgorsen said Howard needed to dump off the ball more quickly, the coach also saw value in his quarterback extending plays — such as the 16-yard scramble-pass touchdown to Ka’Raun White.
“In hindsight it’s easy to say I should’ve done that or should’ve done this, but it’s harder when the bullets are flying,” Howard said. “I’d like to think that I can make something happen on all of those plays.”
Standout center Tyler Orlosky, one of only two linemen to start all six games this season, referenced communication mishaps among “things that we slacked on last Saturday.” He agreed his group wasn’t always at fault.
“As an offensive line I think we were responsible for giving up two or three of them,” Orlosky said.
One of those sacks fell at the feet of Adam Pankey, a tailor-made guard who has been forced out to left tackle again in the wake of Yodny Cajuste’s season-ending knee injury.
At least this year’s TCU experience proved more positive than the 2015 outing Pankey endured as a pinch-hit left tackle in Fort Worth.
“I had a bad game last year against TCU and that stuck out big to me,” he said. “When I got popped out there to tackle (last season) it was like no reps. This year the coaches were even getting me reps during camp so it was way more comfortable for me.
“From technique to confidence, it’s night and day.”
Just like the night-and-day gap between this season’s 6-0 start and last season’s 3-3. Fixing glitches on a top-10 team feels more gratifying.
“There’s some stuff I’d like to see us do better,” said line coach Ron Crook after grading the TCU film. “But we played physical, we played tough, and we played the game we needed to play.”
Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1) no longer features top-flight defensive ends Emmanual Ogbah and Jimmy Bean, who combined for 2.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown in Morgantown last season. In their places the Cowboys start sophomores Jarrell Owens and Cole Walterscheid and freely rotate junior backups Tralund Webber and Vili Leveni.
Working inside are four active defensive tackles, all 305 pounds or larger, led by Vincent Taylor and DeQuinton Osborne.
Despite ranking only seventh in the Big 12 in total defense, the Cowboys are tops with 16 forced turnovers, second in third-down defense (35.6 percent) and fourth in sacks (2.57).