The fourth quarter of West Virginia’s 52-44 overtime loss to Iowa State in the season finale underscores the woes of WVU’s offense in 2013.
WVU ran five third-down plays in the final 15 minutes of regulation. The Mountaineers turned the ball over on three of those attempts. Quarterback Clint Trickett was intercepted twice by ISU safety Jacques Washington, and Vernon Davis’ fumble accounted for the other WVU miscue as coach Dana Holgorsen watched his team squander a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
There may be no better representation of the 2013 version of the WVU offense. It averaged 8.7 yards per play during the fourth quarter against the Cyclones but allowed miscues to erase all memories of any positive things it did that night.
Yet its offense could be closer to regaining its explosive reputation.
It’s not a stretch to say WVU’s offense could have ranked among the Big 12’s best a season ago if it had stepped up in key moments by being more consistent and efficient. Instead the Mountaineers finished ninth in the Big 12 in third-down conversion rate (31.9 percent), turnovers (32) and red-zone efficiency (50 percent) while ranking last in goal-to-goal efficiency (52.6 percent).
“That’s not efficient offensive football, that’s not good offensive football,” Holgorsen said. “I think we were decent offensively last year, we just weren’t efficient.”
In other words, WVU came up small when it mattered most. And inconsistent and inefficient quarterback play was at the heart of it all.
“I think we had good players that didn’t understand how to be good offensively,” Holgorsen said. “That’s the challenge this year, to those same guys to understand what it takes to be efficient and it does start with the quarterback position.”
Lackluster quarterback play was an unusual experience for Holgorsen, who has coached the likes of Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and Geno Smith at West Virginia, who each made all-conference teams. His time coaching those signal-callers has been helpful in identifying the traits he looks for in a quarterback.
“You want a kid who, One, football is most important and, Two, [is] tremendously competitive and want[s] to win. All of those guys fit that mold,” Holgorsen said. “If it’s not that important to you and you’re not a competitive person, you’re not going to be that successful.”
Time will tell if WVU will have a quarterback with those traits behind center this fall. Even though Trickett and Paul Millard return after combining to start 10 of WVU’s 12 contests last season, the starting spot in Morgantown, W. Va. is wide open. Skyler Howard, a junior college transfer, is on campus and competing with Millard this spring while Trickett is sidelined with a shoulder injury, but the competition could last deep into preseason camp.
The search for a quarterback to run the offense continues. But, generally speaking, during his searches for quarterback recruits to run his system, Holgorsen tends to lean toward coaches’ kids.
“Typically coaches’ kids say football is the most important thing in my life, so you like that because the work ethic is tremendous,” said Holgorsen who coached Keenum, Kingsbury and Harrell, all sons of football coaches and recruited J.W. Walsh, son of Denton (Texas) Guyer coach John Walsh, to OSU.
“Do you love the game or do you love what the game does for you? That’s the question each kid has to ask,” Holgorsen said. “There are some guys who genuinely love the game and there are certain kids out there that genuinely want to be successful because of what that does for you, socially, ego-wise and all that.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around guys who truly love the game, love the competitive nature of the game and the thrill of being able to wake up with the burning desire to be great and win championships. Unfortunately I have been around guys who, and whatever motivates you is fine, [but] would rather be the starting quarterback than be the winning starting quarterback.”
Which one does WVU have?
That’s the unanswered question, but it is an inquiry that Holgorsen hopes to see resolved if the Mountaineers expect to rebound from a disappointing 2013 season. Holgorsen believes Trickett has a much better understanding of the offense than a season ago, Millard is an experienced option but needs to “develop the competitive spirit to go out and take it," Howard “fits the mold” of his previous successful signal callers and freshman QB William Crest has traits similar to Smith as a guy who “loves the game, loves to play the game.”
Those four competitors give Holgorsen multiple options choose from as they try to avoid a repeat of last year when three different quarterbacks (Millard, Trickett and departed Ford Childress) started games at quarterback.
“At no point last year did anybody step up and take it, say this is mine, give it to me and go out and earn it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to when that will happen, because I’m confident it will happen.”