Offensive inconsistencies dog Mountaineers

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The West Virginia offense still is searching for myriad answers at the midpoint of the season.

Branded as an offensive genius, coach Dana Holgorsen has been left scratching his head, trying to conjure the proper equation to jolt the once-prolific Mountaineers offense, now averaging 24 points per game, back to life. West Virginia ranks 80th out of 125 Division I teams with 392.8 yards per game.

It's unfamiliar territory for Holgorsen, but it's not altogether unexpected.

"We knew we were going to be a work in progress -- everybody knew it," Holgorsen said Tuesday. "I knew it, y'all knew it, our players knew it. We wanted it to come together quicker. I wish I was standing here after six games saying that we know who we are, where we're at and where we're going, but that's just not necessarily the current situation."

At the heart of the issue is a bothersome question, one that offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson likened to the "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" puzzler: can the Mountaineers offense find its feet without first resolving the quarterback question?

A year ago, that wasn't a concern. Geno Smith was a third-year starter, etching his name beside Pat White atop nearly every quarterback category in the West Virginia record books.

Exit Smith and All-American receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and the Mountaineers were left with an effectively empty offensive cupboard.

Six weeks into the season, West Virginia (3-3, 1-2 Big 12) has started three quarterbacks for two games apiece. Each quarterback had an impressive, victorious debut, was crowned the starter for the following weekend and came away with a perfectly forgettable second effort.

With redshirt junior Clint Trickett (shoulder) and redshirt freshman Ford Childress (pectoral) nursing injuries, it's not clear who is the No. 1 quarterback.

"I'm not prepared to say that Clint is our quarterback because Ford didn't do anything to lose the job," Holgorsen said.

In mid-August, Holgorsen was asked whether he would platoon quarterbacks to start the season. His response: "I've never done it and don't plan on doing it."

Yet, whether due to injuries or inexperience, he has done it. Entering the back half of the schedule, West Virginia has no more answers at quarterback than it did in August.

The only feasible conclusion, perhaps, is that none of these quarterbacks is the answer.

But back to the chicken and egg comparison ...

West Virginia has yet to find an explosive, breakout receiver to replace Austin and Bailey. Redshirt senior running back Charles Sims has been productive at times but largely held in check. The offensive line has been porous.

"They've played like our whole offense has -- inconsistently," Holgorsen said.

Should blame for those factors be targeted at the quarterbacks alone? Surely not, Holgorsen said, but without West Virginia's trademark ability to throw downfield, opposing defenses can stack the box, bring pressure and keep the Mountaineers from establishing the line of scrimmage, rendering the run game moot.

In the past two games, Trickett showed a penchant -- but not precision -- for the deep ball. His 9-of-28 passing line for 161 yards, a touchdown and an interception against No. 17 Baylor was a product of the game plan, a blueprint hoping to match the Bears' quick-strike attack.

And that, despite the defeat, will remain the plan.

"We try to attack, and we will try again," Holgorsen said. "We are going to try and put ourselves in the best situation we possibly can. If it doesn't work, we need to do it again and again and again until it works out.

"You can't use a magic wand or put some sort of a spell over them to make that stuff work. You just have to play."

Though the lopsided, 73-42 loss against Baylor, which came two weeks after a 37-0 shutout against Maryland, has been followed by cries for Holgorsen's head, West Virginia is exactly where they were projected to be at the midway point.

Four of the Mountaineers' six opponents were ranked in the first half, and West Virginia emerged an even 3-3. The second half of the schedule is markedly easier, with just one ranked opponent (No. 20 Texas Tech) left.

"You can see some things happening that show improvement," Holgorsen said. "Whether you want to believe that or not, you can see some things."


Stephen J. Nesbitt:, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published October 10, 2013 8:25 PM


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