It seems like special teams is an achilles heel for WVU more years than not, but, based on their performance against Marshall, I don’t think that will be the case this season.
Obviously, the two low points for special teams were Bitancurt’s missed extra point on the first touchdown and the blocked punt that gave Marshall the ball inside the 10 yardline and lead to a touchdown. Kickoff return coverage was excellent, however, and the problems with the punting game and extra points can and will be fixed.
Here’s a breakdown of the special teams performance by WVU against Marshall:
- Field Goals: WVU did not attempt any field goals, and Bitancurt was 9-10 on extra points. The missed extra point cost WVU the chance to have 70 points in two straight games.
- Kickoffs: Corey Smith averaged 61.9 yards on 11 kickoffs and had 3 touchbacks. Kickoffs are going to be an interesting strategy decision thoughout the year with the new kickoff rules (kickoffs moved to the 35, touchbacks come out to the 25). With the kickoffs at the 35, it’s easy to kick the ball into the endzone for a touchback, but less desirable since the ball comes out to the 25. Am I the only one that thinks this is a stupid rule? WVU started the game out by having Corey Smith boot the ball into/through the endzone for touchbacks on the first two kickoffs, but quickly moved to short, high kicks aimed at the goal line, so Marshall would return the ball rather than take the ball at the 25 after a touchback. Smith was very solid on his kickoffs.
- Kick Return Coverage: Marshall averaged 20 yards per kick return, with a long of 25. Kickoff return coverage was the strongest (and most used) facet of the WVU special teams unit. They consistently denied Marshall good starting field position throughout the game; only once did Marshall return the ball beyond the 25 yardline. It’s a huge advantage when you can kick the ball short of a touchback and pin the opposing team inside the 25, rather than just giving them the touchback.
- Punts: WVU only attempted two punts in the game. One was blocked and lead to a Marshall touchdown. Corey Smith booted the other for 45 yards, which is solid. Based on the offensive performance from WVU in the past two games, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be punting too often this year. But we need to avoid blocked punts for sure.
- Punt Return Coverage: Marshall returned the lone WVU punt that did not get blocked 19 yards. It’s hard to make a judgement based on one play, but you’d like to see this number get down below 10, obviously.
- Kickoff Returns: Marshall tried and succeeded in keeping the ball away from Tavon Austin. Austin had one return for 35 yards, but the rest of Marshall’s kicks were angled short and went to other players. Stedman Bailey, Ryan Clarke, and Andrew Buie all got return opportunities on short kicks and did decent jobs. Overall, we averaged 18.4 yards on 5 returns. WVU needs to figure out a way to get the ball into Austin’s hands on kickoff returns though. Maybe they need to practice different formations or lateraling the ball to him, but he’s clearly a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball.
- Punt Returns: Tavon Austin returned three punts for a total of 19 yards, with a long of 14 yards. Marshall kept him bottled up pretty well on punt returns. He’ll break a few for touchdowns this year though, no worries.
Overall, the special teams unit was solid. I think the coaches and the players spent a good part of the game getting used to the new faces on the field and adjusting to the new rules (as well as opening game jitters) and that lead to a few hiccups (missed extra point, blocked punt). But the kickoffs/return coverage was definitely a bright spot. I was very impressed that Smith was able to kick the ball short of a touchback and the coverage unit was able to keep the opposing team inside the 25 on 7 of 11 kickoffs. That’s huge.
As for the problems, they will be fixed. In his post game press conference, Coach Holgorsen said that having new guys on special teams, particularly the long snapper, made things difficult for the kickers. This is fixable with personnel changes and simply more practice, and Holgorsen said that the problem would be addressed.
I think we’ll see continued improvement over the next few weeks and the special teams unit will be very strong heading into Big 12 play against Baylor.