By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If Dana Holgorsen accomplishes only one thing between the time West Virginia University’s football team last took the field in Cincinnati and takes it against Pitt Panthers on the Friday after Thanksgiving at Milan Puskar Stadium, it has to be fixing what’s wrong with his offensive line.
A football team without an offensive line is like a canoe without a paddle, having no way to move forward when the flow is going against you.
There are reasons to believe he may not be able to fix it, considering that it has been a season-long theme and has been the major factor keeping Holgorsen from putting together the overpowering offensive machines he has produced at Houston and Oklahoma State.
Somehow the Mountaineers were able to get enough offense to beat Cincinnati the last time out, although it must be noted it would not have done it without a defensive touchdown, and whatever offense they had was the product of the work of the Geno Smith and his receivers more than anything the offensive line was able to produce.
“None of them played good enough to win,” Holgorsen admitted this week, not wanting to delve any deeper into the subject. “We’ll leave it at that, but they need to get better.”
In truth, it has become the ugly wart at the end of a witch’s nose.
Against Cincinnati, Smith survived through five sacks … and at no time did anyone offer the alibi of them being “coverage sacks.”
That alone would be a dismal statistic and enough to kill any chance at a big offensive day, but Cincinnati did it mostly by rushing just three linemen, seldom running blitz schemes.
Perhaps the Bearcats did so out of sympathy for Smith, but more because of a belief that they could get to the quarterback and have help covering the likes of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
At the same time that they were harassing the West Virginia quarterback, they were tearing the running backs apart limb by limb.
West Virginia, a team that under Rich Rodriguez would regularly rush for 300 yards in a game, managed to rush for 32 yards in 32 carries. For those who failed Math 101, that figures out to 1.0 yards per rush.
Put another way, the Mountaineers would need 10 rushes to make a first down, and there are very few plays drawn up in a playbook for ninth down and a yard to go situations.
But here’s the worst part of that. The Mountaineers actually believed they should have and could have run the ball because Cincinnati’s defensive objectives were aimed toward downfield coverage.
“Probably the most discouraging thing I dealt with last Saturday was we had numbers to run the ball and we couldn’t do it, which changes a whole lot of things I do offensively,” Holgorsen said.
Certainly the members of the offensive line understand that things did not go well in the Cincinnati game and that they have never been dominant all season.
“It’s all correctable,” starting guard Tyler Rader said.
And to correct it they will go back to the A-B-Cs.
“In practice we will focus on technique, go back to the first things you learn in camp,” Rader said.
Certainly, Rader said, Cincinnati was responsible for some of the problems.
“Cincinnati was good. They gave it to us. I don’t think that excuses five sacks and 32 yards rushing. We have to do better than that,” he said.
The five sacks were really the key issue for sacks lead to third-and-long situations or, worse yet, injured quarterbacks, and when you can only rush for 32 yards, you don’t want your quarterback to be standing on the sideline on crutches.
“There is no offensive lineman that wants the quarterback to be hit,” Rader admitted. “Any time Geno is hit we hate it. I just hope he still trusts us. I can’t speak for him, but we’re still going to do all we can to see he doesn’t get hit.”
The challenge is to get it right before Pitt, because the Panthers have a strong defensive line that puts a great deal of pressure on quarterbacks.
“It means we need to get better,” Holgorsen said. “We sat in here and dealt with what Syracuse did against us by sending in more guys than we could block, but the opposite happened against Cincinnati. They didn’t bring any pressure, and it was still challenging.
“We’ve got to block better. We’ve got to finish blocks better, or we’ve got to find guys to come in here that are better than the ones we’ve got. We love them, but we want them to get better. We’re going to put them in a position to be successful, but at some point they’ve got to figure out a way to get it done.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.