I’ve told you the reasons why this season was successful for the Mountaineers. Let’s not forget that this year’s WVU team did end an extended losing streak against ranked teams.
But a seven-win season this year after a 10-win campaign last year is a bit of a step backward.
West Virginia may have outscored teams from the state of Kansas by nearly four touchdowns, but the Mountaineers gave up just 21 fewer points to the two teams from the state of Oklahoma than the four teams from Texas. West Virginia also defeated half the Lone Star State, while once against going winless against the Sooner State.
Not being able to win the biggest games of the year is one of the reasons this season wasn’t a success for WVU.
- Too inconsistent on offense
As good as the offense was at times, it was pretty absent in others. Over a three-game stretch against Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas, the Mountaineer offense was responsible for seven scoreless quarters, including five in a row over the last two contests mentioned.
It wasn’t the first time this season it happened either.
WVU took the third quarter off against Kansas and let the Jayhawks get back in the game; took the fourth quarter off against Baylor in a joint-effort near-collapse; turnovers and a slow start put the Mountaineers in a hole early on against Oklahoma State. The run game was non-existent at times, and whether that was scheme or execution issues – likely both –, that’s something that needs to be fixed moving forward. It’s been clear over the last few years that WVU is at its best offensively when its running the ball well.
- Not enough battles won in the trenches
One of the contributing factors to the offense not being at its best was the offensive line. A group that stayed relatively healthy throughout the year never seemed to fully jell.
Quarterback Will Grier was under a lot of pressure, though his play hid a number of his line’s imperfections. Despite only giving up 17 sacks all season, Grier felt the heat much more than that.
On the other side, the defensive line wasn’t getting enough push, either. To be fair, the group improved greatly from Week 1 to the end of the season, but still wasn’t getting in the backfield nearly as often as you would like to see.
- Tackling woes continue
One of the more glaring takeaways from the season opener was that the Mountaineer defensive players were wrapping up the Hokies. They weren’t arm tackling while trying to strip the football, they were making full body-to-body contact and completing tackles.
The longer the year went on, the less that happened. Tackling continued to be a problem and came to a head each of the last two weeks where a number of blown tackles allowed the Texas and Oklahoma offenses to get bigger plays than they should have.
- Minus-two in the win column
Hindsight is 20-20, but the argument can be made that this should have been a nine-win team.
Looking at the five losses, two were inevitable for the most part – Oklahoma State, because the Cowboys were simply the better team, and Oklahoma, because of the Grier injury and the Sooners being the better team. That leaves the three other losses – Virginia Tech in the season opener, on the road against TCU, and at home against Texas.
The TCU loss is arguably the loss where it’s easiest to see the path to victory. If the Mountaineers’ special teams unit doesn’t cause its own fumble on what would’ve been a punt return in the first half, TCU doesn’t score that touchdown, and maybe WVU puts the deciding points on the board. Later in that game, on the ensuing play following a Grier interception, TCU scored on a 45-yard pitch and catch that coaches said afterwards they knew was coming. There’s seven more points that could’ve been kept off the board.
Games against Texas and Virginia Tech turn into wins if uncontrollable things don’t happen.
Against the Longhorns, it’s simple: If Grier doesn’t go down the Mountaineers likely win the game. To be fair, Texas had been playing a number of close games against teams that were using their starting quarterback. Defeating the Hokies, I argue, would’ve happened if that was the second game on the schedule instead of the first. That would’ve given all the new pieces on offense a game to jell, and would’ve given Marcus Simms the chance to play in the game, both of which would’ve made a big difference.
- Winless in the “big ones”
Not beating Virginia Tech leads into the final point of why 2017 wasn’t a success for WVU.
Each game counts and is important, but obviously some are more important than others. Half of West Virginia’s schedule was played against ranked competition. WVU went 2-4. Neither then-ranked team WVU defeated finished the regular season in the polls.
The rivalry game against the Hokies: loss.
“ESPN GameDay” game against the Horned Frogs: loss.
Home game against the Cowboys: lopsided loss
Season finale against the Sooners: lopsided loss.
As detailed above, two of those games easily could’ve turned into wins.
West Virginia has proven to be capable of beating Oklahoma State in the past, but still needs to find the right recipe for beating Oklahoma. Being winless in big games isn’t a problem unique to this year’s team, it’s been an issue for the Mountaineers for years. Though, given how close the Mountaineers were in at least two of those games, not changing the narrative is why not winning the “big ones” hurts.