Lots of Wins, But Disturbing Bug For West Virginia Special Teams
MORGANTOWN, W. Va — West Virginia executed an outstanding plan to block a punt and score a touchdown against Oklahoma State. That was part of a very good special teams performance overall, one that actually bested the Cowboys’ usually dominant special units. However, one disturbing problem — one that cropped up not once but twice — again cast a bit of a damper over the unit as a whole.
First, the good. WVU, as it does each week, studied the opposition for potential areas of exploit, and thought it had a way to get to Okie State punter Zach Sinor.
“We wanted to try to occupy their shield,” Mountaineer assistant coach Mark Scott explained. “We thought we had a bead on their protection. They were changing some things at the line and we made a great adjustment on getting those guys lined up and then we flipped our block and that let the edge guys get in there.”
Translated, WVU replaced its inside punt rushers, which have been guys like David Sills, Dravon Askew-Henry, and Ricky Rogers, with some beefier players on a third quarter punt. Into the game came Adam Hensley, Zach Sandwisch and Logan Timmons, who all rushed up the middle. That trio drew all the attention from the the shield (the three protectors in front of the punter), which allowed Osman Kamara to take a more direct path to the punter. He did that, got to the ball and blocked it into the end zone, where Marvin Gross fell on it for a touchdown. In perhaps the only way possible, this put momentum back on West Virginia’s side.
“It’s one of the things you kind of have in the back of your min,” Scott said of the process that led to the switch and the blocked punt. “The first couple of punts they are checking up with us in the box, and we have two or three adjustments.”
WVU also handled the unexpected absence of Mike Molina well. The starting kicker injured his hip during Friday practice, and was ruled out for Saturday’s game after a morning exam. That led to the elevation of Evan Staley who has continually improved over the course of the season on kickoffs, and he responded as Scott expected he might. The West Virginia native made all four of his extra points and a short field goal while pulling the double duty.
“We had talked about it last night after what happened with Mike,” Scott said of the way the coaching staff handled the kicking situation. “Evan is as confident a kid as we have. There isn’t much that fazes him.”
While all was sunny up to that point, an obscuring cloud, much like the misting ran that blanketed Mountaineer Field, cropped up in the fourth quarter. Not once, but twice, WVU was offside on kickoffs. The first, coming on a short kick that came from midfield due to an Oklahoma State penalty, was bad enough, but the second, which came on an onside kick, was even worse, as it negated any chance the Mountaineers had of retaining possession. OSU recovered Staley’s kick without needing to use the penalty, but that’s not the point. It was another bug in a litany of special teams problems that have dogged the West Virginia over the past few seasons, and it was especially bothersome that it happened on consecutive kickoffs.
On the onside kick, Backup Alex Marenco was beyond the line, and on the first usually steady wide receiver Gary Jennings committed the infraction.
“It’s a lack of discipline, a lack of focus,” a disturbed, yet honest Scott said. “We stress that in the huddle before going out. We can’t have that. You can’t make mistakes like that against a good team and expect to win. We made some good special teams plays like with the blocked punt, but you can’t follow up a play like that with [one like this].”
As West Virginia has some problems that are likely going to be part of the team’s makeup for the rest of the year, it simply can’t afford glitches like this one. It is going to have to play extremely well in areas where it has strengths, and not shoot itself in the foot in others. It seems as if different issues with special teams have cropped up every week this year, and those must be eliminated if West Virginia is to earn bowl eligibility.