West Virginia’s defense was plenty good enough for the Mountaineers to compete for a Big 12 Conference championship in 2020.
Ultimately, however, the offense was not productive enough for coach Neal Brown’s team to get to that level. With a scoring average of 26.5 points, the Mountaineers were better than only two of the league’s 10 teams.
For West Virginia to rise to the upper tier of the conference in 2021, it will have to improve offensively, which starts with producing more big plays.
“We missed too many shots down the field,” Brown said Wednesday at Big 12 Media Days. “We had people open a lot of times that we didn’t connect and we had some drops that were a factor in that. We have to be more explosive.
“In this league, if you look at the teams that played offense at an elite level, they’re not grinding out drives. They have explosive plays and to have explosive plays, you have to be able to break tackles, be elite with run after the catch or hit shots down the field.”
Quarterback Jarret Doege, whom Brown referred to as “probably our most improved player during spring practice,” returns for his redshirt senior season. Featured tailback Leddie Brown is also back for his senior campaign, while juniors Winston Wright, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James highlight a receiving corps that hopes to show improvement.
“Offensively, we’ve been young and played a lot of freshman and second-year players the last two years,” Neal Brown said. “Now we have veterans that have game experience and we’re looking at a much more productive unit.”
While the Mountaineers enter 2021 with more experienced skill position players, the same can be said for the offensive line. Up front, West Virginia is likely to start no fewer than four returning players and perhaps Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester, a junior who played 19 games and started 17 while with the Hokies.
“For the first time since I’ve been the head coach at West Virginia, we have experience up front,” Neal Brown said.
Although a concerted effort is being made to increase explosive plays, better red zone and third down execution is imperative to the offensive success.
Last season, WVU scored on 36 of 41 trips to the red zone and its 87.8 scoring percentage was good for 35th nationally. However, 11 of those 36 scores were field goals.
The Mountaineers converted 41.6 percent of their 167 third down attempts, which ranked No. 56 nationally.
“Third downs and red zone are the most important pieces for us offensively to take advantage of,” Neal Brown said. “We have to score touchdowns rather than kick field goals in the red zone, and on third down, we have to be able to convert, especially in the middle.”
Having the league’s top-ranked and lowest scoring defense helped lead the Mountaineers to a sixth-place finish in the Big 12 last season at 4-4, though they didn’t play conference champion Oklahoma.
In the league’s preseason poll released last week, WVU was chosen to finish sixth again.
“You can’t control where you’re at preseason,” Neal Brown said. “I’m sure there’s reasons why we’re there. Like I tell our players, ‘you either prove them right or prove them wrong.’ Our goal this season is to prove them wrong. To do that, we have to play better. To play better, we have to practice better. Our theme for this year is to be better and the objective in every phase is to be better.”