MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It seems the remedy to West Virginia’s third-down futility, like most of the Mountaineers’ concerns this fall, is to stop relying on the pass.
Through the midpoint of this season, West Virginia had been converting on third down at a 29-percent clip, better than only 14 Division I-A teams, leading coach Dana Holgorsen to call the third-down efforts “atrocious.”
On Saturday, in a 37-27 loss to No. 16 Texas Tech, that number nosed upward, if only slightly.
Redshirt junior quarterback Clint Trickett and the offense converted 7 of 17 third-down opportunities — hardly a point of pride yet definite confirmation that a new third-down approach is working.
The telltale number is how the offense fared before its fourth-quarter collapse, before it resorted to relying on Trickett’s arm and threw on all five third downs in the quarter, converting only once.
“It was clearly better until we got to the fourth quarter,” Holgorsen said.
In the first three quarters, when the offense was humming, the focal points were backs Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith, who combined for 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
No matter the field position, the ground game was, for the first time, the preferred third-down option. Eight of 12 third-down snaps in the first three quarters were runs — five of those eight were converted for first downs.
In comparison, in the previous two Big 12 Conference games against Baylor and Oklahoma State, running backs had just seven carries on 37 third-down opportunities, and the offense converted just 11 of those snaps.
The run-first approach Saturday paid off in the second quarter when, already burned for 18-, 12-, 16- and 16-yard runs on third down, the Texas Tech secondary took the bait and was beat over the top by a 40-yard pass to Kevin White.
The run vanished late.
“Everyone asks why did those drives [in the fourth quarter] look different than the previous seven drives, and the answer is we just did not execute,” Holgorsen said.
“We had open people,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We had it, we just didn’t do it.”
The key to improving the third-down conversion rate, Dawson said, is to improve on first and second downs and avoid third-and-long scenarios. West Virginia faced two third-and-11 situations in the fourth quarter and didn’t convert either.
“Third-and-longs are tough,” Dawson said. “Third and longs are probably, across the nation, about 15-percent conversion. The coaching point there is: Do better on first and second down. Let’s get into a third down that’s a little more manageable.”
NOTE — Nearly two months after the West Virginia athletic department launched an internal investigation into allegations against assistant coach Joe DeForest that surfaced in a Sports Illustrated report on the Oklahoma State program, West Virginia has cleared itself of wrongdoing. “WVU has not found any infractions of NCAA rules or other misconduct at our institution,” a West Virginia statement read. “WVU is unable to comment on the veracity of the media allegations levied against the assistant coach while employed at another institution, and defers to that institution, as well as appropriate NCAA infractions personnel, to complete a review and assessment of those allegations.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.