WVU’s Offensive Efficiency Greatly Improved So Far
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Just two games into the 2018 football season, admittedly we’re dealing with a small sample size. But trends in regard to West Virginia offense are starting to emerge, and those trends are encouraging.
Despite having many of the same principal players returning from last year, so far the Mountaineers are proving to be much, much better on third downs, and thus are able to sustain drives. Both were offseason keys for WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who has talked constantly since the end of 2017 about becoming more efficient.
“I think it has improved a lot,” noted Spavital. “You can kind of look at how we have sustained these 10-14 play drives. That’s something that we look at in terms of efficiency. You look at the Tennessee game, and I thought we were pretty efficient across the board.
“We have had 20 drives on the year. We had 10 drives each game, and for the most part, I think we have been sustaining drives.
“Our critical downs are a lot better than what we have had in the past,” continued the second-year O.C. “We just have to keep pressing forward in terms of making sure we are consistently playing at that high of a level, but efficiency has been the main thing that has changed us in who we are now. We are not playing at an ultra-fast pace. We are trying to get into the proper play calls. You see at times, like with Will (Grier) in the first drive (against Youngstown State, which ended in Grier’s only interception so far this season); you saw him try to make that big, explosive play. He tried to extend some things that he hasn’t done in a while. After the first drive, he came off to the sidelines and got right back to the flow of how we normally are. I thought, for the most part, he was really efficient after that first drive.”
West Virginia’s offense last year averaged 34.5 points a game, which was 22nd in the FBS ranks. While that scoring average was good, WVU was big play dependent, because that unit struggled mightily on third downs. It converted just 33.5 percent of them, which was the 111th best mark nationally.
That stat has changed distinctly this year, as WVU, which is 21st in scoring offense with an average of 46.0 points per game, is currently eighth in the third-down conversion category, converting 60 percent of them.
That efficiency comes from West Virginia’s ability to run the football more consistently than it did last year and its willingness to take the short throws if necessary. If the Mountaineers do all that well enough, the big plays will also follow.
“I think the mentality of a lot of (WVU’s opponents) is that they are going to keep things in front of them, force us to run the ball and make us be an efficient offense. We kind of saw the writing on the wall for this,” explained WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “We knew that we would be in these situations.
“If you do that consistently, if you are running the ball effectively, it’s going to get those safeties more involved, and it’s going to get the linebackers more involved,” noted the eighth-year head coach. “Then you are going to be able to hit these deeper passes down the field, and you saw that early in the second half (against YSU). Gary (Jennings) caught a couple deep balls. You saw that in the Tennessee game in the second half, where we were running the ball more, and they started loading up the box and giving us opportunities on the perimeter. I think that’s just part of the chess match that we have to play each week. It all depends on how they are going to come out and play us, and I think we have answers for all of it. We just have to keep focusing on being the most efficient offense we can possibly be.”
Last season the Mountaineers had 26 drives of eight plays or more, which averaged out to 2.0 per game in their 7-5 campaign. In the first two games of 2018, WVU has seven drives of eight plays or more (3.5 per game), topped by a 14-play march against Youngstown state, which equaled the longest of ’17.
Yet West Virginia’s offense still has the ability to hit big plays. It has 18 plays of 20 yards or longer so far this year (9.0 per game), while it had 73 all of last season (5.6 per game).
Certainly WVU will face tougher opponents in the weeks ahead, but so far the Mountaineers’ offensive efficiency has many encouraged.
“I think we are further ahead on the curve just based off the experience that we have,” noted Spavital. “I think we are a very mature team. We have an experienced quarterback and a lot of receivers. We have some pretty good continuity with the o-line.
“We still have a long way to go. When you look at the Youngstown State game, I thought we were a little sloppy at times,” he concluded. “I thought we were up and down on certain things and made some mistakes that we shouldn’t have, but where we are at overall, I think we are in a good spot. I think we are healthy. I think our kids are in the right spot, mentally and physically. I think the culture is right. The rest is just making sure that we continue to improve each week.”