It was homecoming this past Saturday and lots of old friends were in town. The weather was beautiful and the leaves in West Virginia are at a perfect display of Fall Splendor. The tailgate I went to served up Pork Chops that were as big as my head....
...and those are the only nice things I have to say about Saturday.
After looking like the class of the Big East during the first half of the season, all of a sudden the Mountaineers look like the team with more questions that answers. This is what I took away from Saturday's performance:
Geno Smith is not Pat White. Mountaineer faithful stopped having any doubts about their sophomore quarterback after he led back-to-back ninety yard drives against Marshall but that proved to be a bit premature, don't you think? Smith threw three awful interceptions in the first half leading to 9 points by the Orange and the offense dug a hole early they they could never get out of. While one of the interceptions wasn't Geno's fault, the other two were borderline-inexcusable moments where the young QB tried to force the ball into tight coverage. I felt, watching the second half, that Geno was a bit rattled and he had trouble making decisions. Unable to choose a receiver down-feild Smith held the ball too long, getting sacked four times in the second half and twice on the final drive. All of which was made possible by....
- The no-good, awful, very bad play of the offensive line. This line has had issues all year, that much has been evident. Saturday, they faced the best prepared front they've seen all year and withered in the autumn sun. Now, the Orange defense doesn't have the players LSU had, but the zone blitz scheme they implemented to harass Smith worked over and over and over again. The line couldn't suss out who was coming and who wasn't, and generally looked confused as Syracuse sent a myriad of defenders into the Mountaineer backfield. The great question to me is where's Josh Jenkins? Sure, he's out there, but he's far from the savior we were sold on before he got to campus. This line has plenty of experience but they just don't play like it. The dirty truth of this Mountaineer team is that the play of the offensive line is, well, offensive.
- Where were the adjustments? Right now in West Virginia the only people more divisive than would-be US Senators Joe Manchin and John Raese are Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. Everybody and their uncle has an opinion as to what's ailing the Mountaineer offense, but it often boils down to "Playcalling! Bad!". I think that's too simplistic and not at all accurate. That said, Stew and Jeff still have blood on their hands for their failure to address where WVU was getting beaten like a drum, namely on the offensive line. The 'Eers would have benefited from a few plays out of a max-protect package, but Mullen never went there. Instead he had Geno constantly dropping back trying to read the blitz and decipher four and five receiver sets at once. Run a couple of one and two receiver plays and I think the Mountaineers move the ball better. There's obviously speed on the outside to get open, so exploit it. Instead, unable to complete first down passes led to second and third and long and the Syracuse D just teed up and went after Smith making him look like the sophomore that he is. Inflexible in-game decision making can only lead to bad things. WVU is a talented team, but not so talented that they can simply show up and exert their will. Often the game will be decided by how the Mountaineers adapt to the situation presented, and Saturday was a perfect example of what happens when they don't.
So, in a nutshell, with better offensive line and quarterback play and a couple of halftime adjustments, WVU could have won this game going away. Instead, the Mountaineers suddenly find themselves playing catch-up with the rest of the conference. A conference title is still a great possibility, but no longer seems like a probability. That's unfortunate, but no reason to give up on the 2010 Mountaineers just quite yet.