By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Even after scoring 38 points against TCU in last week’s third consecutive defeat, much has been made about the recent shortcomings of a West Virginia University offense that appeared unstoppable through the season’s first five games, averaging better than 50 points a game while rewriting the Mountaineer record book.
Considering that the output in those three losses totaled 66 points — fewer points than WVU had scored in each of three of the preceding six games — this created a tremendous negative stir and led to a great deal of finger-pointing.
Indeed, there was plenty of blame to go around, for the offensive line was exposed as being porous, the running game without injured Shawne Alston could not generate enough to bring defensive backs up toward the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Geno Smith, for whatever reason be it a lack of time, a minor arm problem or whatever, saw his accuracy and production drop so badly that it was being argued that he might be human after all.
“It’s just circumstances. That’s the way football is. Things don’t work out quite as well as you want them to,” he said when asked if he could put a finger on anything that stood out to have caused this power failure. “We hit an obstacle. It’s about staying with the course and believing in yourself and the coaches.”
Indeed, that is part of it, but perhaps what is being missed the most is the limited production the Mountaineers have been able to get out of wide receiver Stedman Bailey since he injured an ankle.
Bailey caught 13 passes alone in each of the season’s second and fourth games. He has caught 12 in the past three games combined.
He caught at least two touchdown passes in four of the first five games of the season. He has caught two in the past three games combined and had to wait until the second overtime in the latest game to finally make a TD grab, just his second catch of that entire game.
You hesitate to heap so much onto Bailey’s shoulders, for surely there are other weapons out there, but with all due apologies to Tavon Austin and Co., Bailey has been Costello to Smith’s Abbott, Laurel to Smith’s Hardy or Hansel to Smith’s Gretel.
They grew up together; they were high school teammates; they bonded through three years at West Virginia, knowing each other’s every move, every thought, every emotion.
Smith didn’t lose a receiver when Bailey went out. He lost a part of himself, and now, with who knows what is going on as Ivan McCartney even started ahead of Bailey last week, it is even more intriguing.
You ask Smith about his alter ego, and he gives you a rather strange answer.
“He’s doing fine and getting better. I’m not sure what his injury is, but it did hamper him for a while,” he said.
He doesn’t know for sure what the injury is?
What is he saying there? Is there something to be read in there, something about this being more than an injury?
He has played with it. He just hasn’t played as much or as well and hasn’t really been an integral part of the game plan.
“It’s definitely a factor to have him out there with us. He’s one of the leaders of the offense and a guy we look for to make plays for us,” Smith said. “When he’s not out there, it hurts our numbers a bit, but we can’t use that as an excuse. We need guys to step up.
“We need a second-team guy, or maybe another first-team guy, or even me, to step up and carry his load. We can’t let one guy or two guys affect our offense to the point when we’re not getting the job done.”
Certainly, with Bailey slowed and without the real threat of a running game, defenses do more to stop Tavon Austin, whose use suddenly becomes an intriguing situation. Certainly this is your most dangerous threat, maybe even with Bailey playing, and they do try to find ways to get him the football.
He returns punts, returns kickoffs, catches passes, runs from scrimmage (or takes those short touch passes that are nothing but handoffs). Against TCU, he had one rush, 11 receptions, three punt returns and a kickoff return.
Sounds like a lot, but is it enough as the prime offensive weapon? That’s 16 touches out of 95 offensive plays and kick returns in the game. Almost 80 times he went without the ball.
Smith doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
“I think he gets the right amount of touches. To say he needs more, I don’t know. I’m not sure it will help us,” Smith said.
For the season, Austin has nine rushes and 85 receptions for 104 touches, while at Oklahoma State, for example, its prize running back Joseph Randle has 175 carries and 21 pass receptions for 196 touches from scrimmage. On 92 more occasions, he’s had a chance to make big plays in the offense.
“He’s in a different position,” Smith said of Randall. “Randall is a great running back and he can handle 30 or 40 carries a game.”
However, with Bailey not at the top of his game, would it not make sense to increase Austin’s touches from scrimmage?
“That’s up to the coaches,” Smith said. “I love to see it in his hands because he’s so special with it. I try to get it into his hands as much as possible. As far as game planning, figuring ways to get him more touches, that’s up to the circumstances, whether or not the staff wants him to have it in certain areas of the field or it’s on him to get open. He does a good job at that but there are other guys on the team that need the ball in their hands, too.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.