It’s a whole lot easier in football to move down the field if an offense can pick up big chunks of yardage in a single play rather than marching in small increments.
Since Neal Brown took over as West Virginia’s head coach prior to the 2019 season, the Mountaineers have put together 58 scoring drives. Only six of them lasted longer than a dozen plays, including two this year – a 16-play, 96-yard series that took 7:18 against Eastern Kentucky and resulted in touchdown, and a TD drive of 15 plays and 70 yards at the outset of the Baylor game that ran 6:09 off the clock.
College offenses usually have a tough time nickel-and-diming their way down the field, because something bad – negative-yardage plays, penalties, turnovers – often throw the drive off track if enough plays are run.
If a team can pick up big chunks of yardage through a single explosive play, that makes life much, much easier for an offense.
In the Brown era at WVU, though, explosive plays haven’t been easy to come by.
Last season West Virginia’s offense had 46 chunk plays of 20 yards or longer – 40 passes and six rushes. In the first three games of 2020, the Mountaineers have 11 such 20-yard+ plays – eight passes and three rushes.
That contrasts with WVU’s explosive 2018 offense, which featured big-play specialists like Will Grier, Gary Jennings, David Sills and Marcus Simms. Of West Virginia’s 79 scoring drives in that 8-4 season, only two took more than 12 plays – a 14-play, 82-yard march over 5:27 against Youngstown State and a 13-play, 81-yard series over 2:42 against Oklahoma. Both resulted in touchdowns.
That 2018 West Virginia squad didn’t need lengthy, time-consuming marches, because it was capable of striking quickly from anywhere. In that 12-game season, the Mountaineers had 80 plays that covered 20 or more yards (64 passes and 16 rushes).
Thus WVU averaged 6.67 plays of 20 yards or longer in 2018, 3.83 in 2019 and 3.64 so far in 2020.
It also should be noted that it typically is much easier to hit big plays through the air than on the ground. Since the start of the 2018 season, 112 of West Virginia’s 20+ plays have been passes, while just 25 have been runs.
Thus as Brown is looking for ways to generate more splash plays, he generally looks to the skies.
“We do have to be able to throw the ball down the field better – 100 percent, absolutely,” WVU’s second-year head coach stated.
Most of West Virginia’s big plays in 2020 came against Eastern Kentucky, where the Mountaineers had six passes and three rushes of 20+ against the FCS foe in the season opener. West Virginia had two such chunk plays against Oklahoma State (both passes) and only one against Baylor – a 25-yard Alec Sinkfield run. Its longest pass play against the Bears last Saturday was just 14 yards, though WVU did total 211 yards through air on 30 Jarret Doege completions.
“We had some opportunities against Oklahoma State, and we only hit (a couple) of them,” said Brown. “I didn’t do a good enough job in the Baylor game of getting them called. I’ve got to do a better job; that’s on me. We probably had less than three opportunities against Baylor, and myself as a playcaller, I have to do a better job with that. In the second half, when I got a feel how that game was going, I didn’t want to put us in that position.”
West Virginia did pull out a 27-21 double overtime victory against Baylor last weekend at Mountaineer Field in a game that was tied 14-14 at the end of regulation.
What exactly constitutes an explosive play is up to interpretation. Most coaches will tell you an explosive play is a pass of 20 yards plus or a run of 10 yards plus. Most statisticians, like those at West Virginia, list all plays of 20+, no matter if it’s a run or pass.
Some people think even bigger.
Brown was asked the other day in a press conference about WVU’s lack of explosive plays of 50 yards or more.
“There aren’t a whole lot of people who have those,” the coach snapped back.
Indeed, they are not prevalent. The Mountaineers have just one this year – a 70-yard catch-and-run for a TD by Winston Wright at Oklahoma State – and five last season – all passes. WVU’s big-play attack of 2018 had 13 (10 passes and three rushes).
Certainly 50+ is asking a lot, but more gains in the 20-yard range are something Brown badly wants to increase.
“Moving forward, to win games, we do need to (make explosive plays),” admitted the Mountaineer coach.