By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This being a college town and the West Virginia University Mountaineers being a college football team, we figured it only right that we offer some midterm grades.
So here we go ... we expect to have these returned signed by parent, guardian or position coach by next Friday when the second half of the semester begins with WVU at Syracuse:
PASSING GAME ... A
A passing grade for the passing game.
How could you give anything but an A when this has become the most prolific passing attack in WVU history, breaking the school record for yards passing a game twice in the first five games?
QB Geno Smith has been cool and calculating, making very few mistakes and, for the part, on the money with his deliveries. To make matter more inviting, you would expect with more experience in the new system he will improve in the second half of the season.
RECEIVERS ... B+
This would seem to be a low grade on the surface, considering that there have already been more 100-yard performances (nine) than in any other season in school history.
But the coaches (see today’s WVU story) say there is much room for improvement in the receiving corps, that they have dropped too many passes (eight in the last game) and have to block better before they combine on an A.
Stedman Bailey, with four straight 100-yard games, certainly has been the best of the group while Tavon Austin and Ivan “Sticks” McCartney have been B performers, not quite reaching the potential they have to break games open.
OFFENSIVE LINE ... B
The offensive line has been growing with each game. It came into the season a question mark and hasn’t fully answered the question of how good it can be, but it has shown marked improvement, especially in run blocking.
The pass protection has been solid and, while early in the year this group really had problems opening holes, they have stepped forward to the point that there is potential for a running game that complements the passing game.
RUNNING GAME ... C
This group got off to a slow start as the starting running back had not been anointed and the line was still figuring out how to block the running game.
In the end it was Dustin Garrison, a true freshman from Texas, who took command of the running game, rushing for 291 yards against Bowling Green, second-highest rushing total in history, with some magnificent runs and then tacking on 80 more yards against UConn.
For the most part, the 200-yard rushing games are over, but the team should average around 150 to make the offense most effective.
DEFENSIVE LINE ... B
This group has played well, but not nearly great. Part of the problem is that the anchor this season is not Chris Neild in the middle, an overpowering force who is now playing in the NFL. His job has been turned over to Jorge Wright, who has been good but is still learning on the job.
The pressure on the passer was not what was expected, in part because DT Julian Miller has battled a tender ankle all season and teams have concentrated on Bruce Irvin. A five-sack performance the last time, however, says the pass rush is ready to become the savage rush expected.
Stopping the run has been a strength, and Will Clarke, coming in for Irvin on running downs, has made a lot of difference.
LINEBACKERS ... C+
This is sort of a no-name group of linebackers that has had to be shuffled due to injury. It appears that the group as it is now constituted, with redshirt freshman Jewone Snow in the middle, veteran Najee Goode on the strong side and Josh Francis on the weak side, is solid.
These are the players who will have to make most of the tackles and help apply pressure on the pass rush so that teams can’t commit fully to stopping the surge of Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller.
DEFENSIVE BACKS ... B
This group has done what it is supposed to do for the most part but not lifted itself to any spectacular heights.
Keith Tandy and Pat Miller have made life difficult on wide receivers but haven’t smothered them, while the safeties Eain Smith and Terence Garvin have been sure tacklers, but no one has developed into the next Robert Sands yet.
SPECIAL TEAMS ... C-
This has been the most inconsistent part of the team and probably should have earned an incomplete, for the change in punting from Corey Smith to Michael Molinari seemed to be a positive move, but Molinari has punted only in one game.
Tyler Bitancurt has bounced back completely from a bad season last year as placekicker and probably is the best the Big East has to offer.
The return game with Tavon Austin doing most of the work ranks first in the conference in punt returns and second in kickoff returns.
The coverage, however, has been dreadful, last in the conference in both kickoff and punt coverage.
COMMENTS: The team has achieved a 5-1 record through the first half of the season, the loss being to the nation’s No. 1 team. It has areas of spectacular strength but also has a lot of room to improve over the second half of the season and will have to show that improvement both on defense and in its coverage units if it is to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl game.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.