The morning after. As I settle in to an afternoon which features an incredible slate of college football match-ups, I want to reflect on last night's victory in Huntington. Here are some random observations, starting with the good, because I'm a raving optimist:
Geno Smith and the Mountaineers get pass-happy. Last night was the first time since Geno's arrived on campus that we've seen him in complete control and making plays. He was 32-for-45 last night which is just an insane total for a Mountaineer quarterback. No Mountaineer QB has completed that many passes in the past eleven seasons and the last guy, March Bulger, went on to be a pretty good pro. Only seven times in school history have that many passes ever even been attempted. So the guy is a passer, and at run-happy West Virginia, I think it's a welcome change. We needed it down the stretch, and with the game on the line Geno was able to pick up big chunks of the field.
Geno doesn't look like a guy starting his second game. A lot of the coverage this morning is focused on the "Marshall Choked" part of the storyline. That may be true, but in order to pick up the victory Smith had to march his squad on duel 95 and 98 yard scoring drives. The Thundering Herd defense may have allowed some easy reads, dropping back into a prevent style defense that allowed the 'Eers to move, but in both drives Smith was pressed with the task of picking up crucial 3rd and 4th down conversions. On the Mountaineers first touchdown drive, from their own 29, Geno scrambled for 17 on a key third conversion that could have ended the game right then and there had he not picked it up. His decision making on the final drive was steady, and he put himself into position be the guy with the game on the line. That's what's amazing to me, on that drive's final two plays, both from the 2, both crucial to the cause... the Mountaineers ran on neither. The ball was put in the young QB's hands, and he came through. It's so astonishing that I hardly believed it had happened when I woke up this morning.
Noel Devine wasn't too shabby either. People are going to pile on the run game after this one, viewing the emergence of a passing game as proof of it's failure. Last night wasn't bad, it was just.... different. Noel didn't break any long gainers, but he had plenty of productive running. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and looked like a more workman-like back than the explosive game-changer he's been in previous seasons. He also tallied ten catches, putting his number of touches in the low thirties. I think that has to continue for the Mountaineers to succeed. His lack of big runs it troubling, but I think it may be a product of how the offensive line is playing.
Which brings me to the bad.....
The Offensive Line. The Offensive Line. The Offensive Line. Geno was running for his life most of the game. Noel was left dancing in the backfield a number of times... and that's not the half of it. Six of the Mountaineers' eight penalties came on the O-Line, and when they weren't holding or false-starting, they were just plain old getting beat. The line perplexes me. These players aren't completely wet behind the ears, yet they all look lost and unsure of themselves. On the game's final drive, there were back to back false starts on Bowers and Barclay that just can't happen. The game's on the line, and the quarterback is a sophomore. The line just can't dig a hole like that for their young quarterback, or this may be the last victory of the season. Devine, Austin and Sanders have also been hung out to dry in the backfield a few too many times, as well.
The Big Play, for us and them. The defense gave up too many big plays.... and the offense gave up too many as well. A 55 yard run set up Marshall's first score, and their second came on a 96-yard passing play. That can't happen. That said, with the game on the line, the D played big. The offense managed to try and shoot itself in the foot over and over and over, whether with garbage penalties or turnovers. Devine's fumble early in the third quarter is the moment the game truly began to get out of hand. Without that fumble, the Mountaineers would have not needed to mount such a tension inducing comeback, and could have steadily worked their way back into the game. Instead, that proved to be the moment the Marshall squad started to really believe they were going to win. The Mountaineers managed to pull it out, but those kind of mistakes will be game-ending moments against stiffer competition.
My Final Impression. Last night's football game was like so many Friday nights I've spent in Morgantown: exciting, dramatic, and memorable... but I wake up the next day feeling dirty and don't ever want to speak of it again.