By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In one regard, West Virginia defeated Pitt last Friday with one hand tied behind its back, and it may have to do the same in this Thursday’s 8 p.m. game against South Florida in Tampa with a share of the Big East championship and a potential BCS bowl bid up for grabs.
In the first half of WVU’s 21-20 victory over the Panthers, in what may have been the final Backyard Brawl ever, the Mountaineers’ offensive line was manhandled badly by Pitt’s pass rush.
“They were pinning their ears back and we couldn’t block them, so we had to do some things to take some pressure off,” Coach Dana Holgorsen admitted after the game. “In the second half, we probably threw one or two natural drop-back passes, which is incredibly discouraging. That means we’re not doing 60 percent of our offense based on the fact we couldn’t block them.”
At halftime of the game a lot of adjustments were made, putting in big Quinton Spain at right guard and rarely-used Curtis Feigt at right tackle, along with changes in the offense.
“The play calls in the second half didn’t put as much pressure on the offensive line,” Holgorsen said. “Say what you want about the coaches; they did a good job at halftime figuring out a couple of things we needed to do to move forward.”
Holgorsen will go with Spain and Feigt in the South Florida game and well may have to work with 60 percent of his offense again, knowing that South Florida’s pass rush is even more vicious than Pitt’s.
“They’re No. 1 in the country in sacks. They’re top three in negative plays per game,” Holgorsen said, only slightly off in his figures in that South Florida is second in the nation in both sacks and negative plays. “They don’t bleed too much, which means those guys up front are probably pretty good.
“By being able to create negative plays with just four guys up front is pretty good. They rotate some guys in there, too, so top to bottom they may be the best defensive line that we’ve faced,” Holgorsen continued.
The Bulls don’t blitz a lot, either, which means they have people in coverage while putting pressure on the quarterback.
What WVU did against Pitt was run the ball more often in the second half, often behind their two new blockers, and throw more screens and roll outs. It isn’t what quarterback Geno Smith is best at but it is something he can do and is willing to do.
“I don’t think the changes made that much of a difference,” Smith said of the changes on the offensive line. “I think we have a chance to win no matter who is in there, me or anyone else. Our offense is good enough. We can put up points with anyone. Spain has been doing it all year. Curtis did pretty good. We weren’t shocked. He’s a big guy. We’re looking forward to see what they do this week against a really good pass rush.”
Holgorsen admits the offense has been cut back for this game.
“We’ve tapered it some. It’s still all about how it looks within the game,” he said. “You can go into every game, and you can think that you can protect him or you think that you can call more pass plays. Our preparation standpoint has probably changed a little bit. It’s not going to change drastically. It’s all about what you’ve got to do within the game based on what works and based on how the game is going.”
With the offense pared down, however, it is different.
“I have to pay a lot more attention to the flow of the game,” Smith said.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Pitt game was a realization that the running game can work and that with Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston it can have two different looks to it.
Alston knows that moving the ball on South Florida is never easy.
“They’ve always been a real athletic defense. I know the last time we went down there they had a kid named Jason Pierre Paul and he was 6-5, seemed like 290 and as fast to me,” he said, only half joking. “They always were a team that plays hard. They are a good defense, but we’re a pretty good offense now, too.”
The running game makes defenses play more honestly, as proven in the second half of the Pitt game.
“I went in and talked to the offensive line a little bit at halftime,” Alston said. “I don’t think that had much to do with it. I think it was more people just realizing it was Pitt and that we were playing at home. Guys just buckled down and played harder.
“I think we are tighter now. We are able to fight adversity now. When you start losing, the only person you can lean on is your teammate. We learned to stick together through the adversity.”
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Holgorsen says Corey Smith, who made such a huge difference in the Pitt game, will punt again for the Mountaineers while also kicking off ... It’s still uncertain if the Bulls’ QB B.J. Daniels will be able to play. Daniels is out with a sprained shoulder ... Holgorsen isn’t sure who will return punts, Tavon Austin or Devon Brown. USF has given up only 3 yards in punt returns all season.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.