By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is the game within the game, often hidden away behind the statistics, normally having an abnormally important influence on the final score.
West Virginia University coach Dana Holgorsen calls them “critical downs” — third- and fourth-down plays.
When asked where his team needed to improve the most after beating Marshall, 69-34, this was where Holgorsen pointed his finger.
True, it didn’t affect the outcome of this game, such was the Mountaineers’ offensive dominance on first and second down that this did not factor in.
But you could not help but be aware of the defensive shortcomings on third and fourth down for WVU, this allowing Marshall to possess the football five more minutes than the Mountaineers while running 101 plays to just 74 for WVU.
“We were good in critical downs offensively, with the exception of the one fourth down,” Holgorsen said. “The one third down and the one fourth down on the goal line, which was a combination of Shawne (Alston) not hitting the hole and me being stubborn and stupid at the same time in going for it on fourth down. That shouldn’t have happened. But we were 5-of-8 on third down, which is really good.
“Defensively, they were 9-of-19 on third and 2-of-3 on fourth, so around 50 percent is not good enough defensively.”
There were any number of reasons why Marshall was able to have such success on third and fourth down.
One reason plagued WVU throughout the opener — tackling.
This was especially true on third down.
“If you tackle better on third down, you’re probably getting off the field, which reduces the snaps, which reduces the yards. It always comes back to that. We lined up well, we played physical, we played fast and our first downs were great, we just didn’t tackle very good on third down,” Holgorsen said.
The answer, as it is with virtually everything in football, a sport where books are written about how to run between the tackles, is not quite that simple.
In West Virginia’s case, part of it was the lack of experience on the defensive side of the ball.
The Mountaineers played 30 players on defense, and 20 of them were freshmen, redshirt freshmen or players who had not played before.
Inexperience shows up most in the most critical of times, no matter what the sport.
“I think it’s an awareness of down and distance,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest explained. “They knew it was third down, but what’s the distance? Where are the sticks? We drill in practice situations so for them it becomes second nature.”
But that takes time. You have to have a feel for where the first down is so that you can prevent it. Just making the tackle isn’t always the sole objective of the defense.
The problem tackling also can be pinned in part on inexperience and is a common ailment for a football team early in the season.
The good news is that teams improve in their tackling as the season goes on, players being more confident and comfortable in what they are doing. This is especially true in West Virginia’s situation, where there is a new defensive staff and new scheme.
It wasn’t that West Virginia didn’t work on its tackling.
“In situational scrimmages we probably tackled more than anywhere I’ve ever been,” Holgorsen admitted. “We remained healthy, we tackled good and practiced well together, but it’s still different on game day. It’s especially different when you have about 14 freshmen out there. If you count the redshirt freshmen and true freshmen, those guys have never tackled in a college football game. It’s one thing that should improve, and if it doesn’t we won’t be very good defensively.”
DeForest pointed out that it wasn’t just tackling, either. The inexperience with the defense led to a number of mistakes.
“We just missed too many tackles, and we had some alignment issues with our linebackers lining up a yard more outside they should have been. So it is just being disciplined on our alignments and our eyes,” DeForest said.
He believes all the problems are fixable.
“Hopefully we get better this week,” he said. “They say you make your biggest improvement from game one to game two, and we have two weeks to do that.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.