Offensive changes paying off for Mountaineers in Year 2

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Auburn went through some major growing pains last year as it tried to change its offense from buttoned-down and predictable to high-flying and modern. So painful, in fact, that offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and head coach Tommy Tuberville wound up out of work.

This year, under new coordinator Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have finally become a potent attack, scoring 86 points the first two weeks. Auburn's opponent this week can relate to how changing an offense often takes time and the right people to make it work.

West Virginia underwent an identity change last year with new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. Head coach Bill Stewart wanted to counter how teams like Pittsburgh and South Florida were slowing the Mountaineers' spread option by loading the box with nine defenders.

"We had to become more multiple to win big," Stewart said. "Plus, Patrick White was graduating. He wasn't going to be here forever."

Change came slowly and, at times, painfully. The once-explosive West Virginia offense sputtered to score three points at East Carolina, 14 at Colorado, 17 against Syracuse and 15 at Pitt. Only three times in the regular season did the Mountaineers manage 30 points or more against an FBS opponent.

But now, those changes are paying big dividends. It started in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, as White threw the ball all over the field in a 31-30 win over North Carolina. It has continued this season, as West Virginia has averaged 34 points in two victories. In the last three games, the offense has thrown for an average of 303 yards and run for an average of 164 yards. Balance has been achieved.

"We definitely feel a little bit more comfortable now," tight end Tyler Urban said. "We can trust the system because it's been intact for a solid year."

Trust is always a sketchy proposition when you ask players to do something totally different than what they're used to. Mullen had to convince a team that had been running Rich Rodriguez's option system to throw the ball downfield more. And as the new system clunked along, Mullen was heavily criticized by fans and surely faced doubt from his own players.

"I think it depends on how much success you have early," Mullen said. "That's clearly the case with Auburn right now, because they're having a ton of success. Whenever there's success, there's instant credibility, and so that faith journey doesn't take as long.

"With us, we had some of that success taken from us. So it took us a little longer to get back into that mode of believing in something and doing what we thought was right. Slowly, over time, we started to get better and better and better."

Coincidentally enough, Mullen said he thought the Mountaineers really started buying into his system during last year's game against Auburn. After falling behind 17-3, they rallied for 31 unanswered points and, in Mullen's eyes, "got their swagger back."

"When we put up 34 against Auburn, I think we felt a little bit more comfortable," Urban said. "We knew we could score against those highly-ranked defenses."

This year, the passing game has leaped forward under first-year starter Jarrett Brown, who has a cannon arm and a fifth-year senior's savvy. Brown has completed 75 percent of his passes so far while throwing for 577 yards and four touchdowns and running for 142 yards and a score. West Virginia's strength used to lie in the legs of its quarterback and with runners like Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt. Stewart said now the team is loaded at receiver with a guy who can make any throw.

So the Mountaineers' own growing pains on offense now seem worth it for the growth that has occurred. And Mullen says there's more room for improvement.

"Right now, we're trying to ride the three-game streak we're on," he said. "So far, so good. But we're not satisfied, and we certainly don't feel like we've arrived yet."