After last Saturday’s 27-21 win in double overtime against Baylor, the current state of the West Virginia University football team’s two main units seem pretty clear — the defense is surging and the offense needs some work.
But where did the win leave the team’s third phase?
In press conferences throughout the year, Mountaineer coach Neal Brown has consistently stressed the need for improvement on special teams. However, the problems WVU has had in that area aren’t equally distributed, nor are they deficiencies across the board.
There’s been some good and some bad in terms of WVU special teams, and that was seen again during the team’s victory over Baylor last Saturday. Some were obvious — two missed Baylor field goals and one blocked kick were positives. A late collision between returners Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Alec Sinkfield resulting in a muffed punt and, eventually, a tying touchdown for the Bears was a major negative.
Even more of both can be found when digging into the numbers.
Starting with the bad news, punt returns have been an issue for the Mountaineers all season, aside from the blooper-reel mishap that could’ve easily cost WVU a game it had in hand last week. Through three games, the Mountaineers have forced 22 punts yet have only managed to attempt only eight returns for a total of 20 yards, ranking 52nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 2.5-yard average.
Obviously, some of that can be attributed to opposing punters both in terms of distance and hang time. But on Tuesday, Brown admitted that the return game has yet to live up to his standards.
“Really disappointed in our punt return team,” Brown said. “We had two opportunities when we went to block — we were close, but we just didn’t use good technique. We had the play that’s obviously made its way around ESPN and things where the turnover that set up the last score, but we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to give Sinkfield the returner an opportunity to get started, we just didn’t do that. That’s going to be a point of emphasis this week.”
Sinkfield, a junior running back who earned Brown’s praises throughout fall camp, has shown vast improvement with the ball in his hands. Yet he’s attempted only six punt returns this season for 16 total yards and has yet to find many opportunities on special teams.
“That’s kind of the disappointing thing that we’re not getting a punt return started, because I’d like to see what he could do if we’d get him started,” Brown said.
While the Mountaineers haven’t been particularly mistake-prone in terms of punting, the team hasn’t been especially spectacular either, averaging 39.88 yards over 16 punts, just 51st nationally among 74 teams. Again, there are circumstances that can certainly skew that number, primarily field position when the punt is attempted, but it’s another area that Brown has targeted in terms of needing work.
“We didn’t punt the ball well enough,” Brown said. “I thought our coverage was OK on the punt team, but we just didn’t hit good punts.”
On the flip side, while WVU hasn’t been breaking games open with its return units, neither has its opponents. While the Mountaineers have only returned six punts, it’s only allowed three (all last week) for a grand total of 8 yards. And on kick returns? West Virginia is even better, allowing 10 for an average of 15.7 yards per return, putting the team 11th nationally and second among Big 12 teams.
That kick return unit has been even more crucial than most, having faced 10 kick returns, which ranks 52nd out of 68 FBS teams. Baylor’s Tresten Ebner brought two back for touchdowns against Kansas in the team’s opening 47-14 win, but accounted for 27 total yards on three punt returns and one kick return against WVU.
“We’re really covering kicks with the mentality that I like,” Brown said. “I think your kickoff team really sets the tone from a mentality standpoint.”
Unquestionably, the special teams highlight for West Virginia on Saturday came on Baylor field goals where the Bears failed to convert on three attempts, with one being blocked. In a game that went to overtime tied at 14, it’s hard to undersell the importance of those three plays.
It was something Brown spoke about at length Saturday and again on Tuesday.
“I think your field goal block tells the story about who you are, and our field goal block team was special on Saturday,” Brown said. “Blocked a kick, two other kicks that were missed that we had pressure on, almost blocked the game-tying [extra point] at the end of regulation, so did some really good things on that unit.”