MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The most consistent player for West Virginia so far this year was probably the Mountaineers’ most inconsistent player last year: running back Justin Crawford.
Last year, it was either feast or famine for Crawford.
When he wasn’t gaining 331 yards against Oklahoma or 209 yards versus Baylor, or 129 yards against Kansas, or 104 yards against Kansas State, or 101 yards against Missouri; he was getting 40 yards against Youngstown State, or 42 yards against Tech Tech, or minus 2 yards against TCU, or 12 yards against Texas or 29 yards against Iowa State or 16 yards against Miami.
It’s hard to come up with a plan for your No. 1 ball carrier when you don’t know when the rollercoaster is headed up or down.
But so far this year, the ride for the Big 12’s top returning rusher has been all downhill.
Crawford gained 106 yards on 13 carries against Virginia Tech in the season opener, then followed that up with 118 yards and two touchdowns against East Carolina before adding 102 yards and three touchdowns on an economical 15 carries during last Saturday’s blowout victory over Delaware State.
He is averaging nearly eight yards per carry, and more importantly, he’s gotten into the end zone five times so far this season.
Last year, Crawford would have had an easier time getting into North Korea than he did getting into the end zone.
“I’m happy with Crawford,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier today on his weekly teleconference with Big 12 media. “He’s been consistent throughout three games, which is the biggest thing I’ve wanted to see from him this year is being able to do kind of the same thing every game.”
In reality, when you think about it, Crawford has been West Virginia’s most consistent offensive weapon, probably even more consistent than Will Grier‘s wildly successful three-game debut for the Mountaineers.
Based on what we’ve seen from Grier so far, it’s clear Saturday’s 19-for-27, 304-yard, three-touchdown, one-interception performance against Delaware State that included a couple of fumbles was not Will Grier at his very best.
The same goes for West Virginia’s top two wide receivers right now, Gary Jennings Jr. and David Sills V.
Jennings and Sills were outstanding in the season opener against Virginia Tech combining to catch 22 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. But then, a week later ECU decided to take away Jennings leaving Sills free to catch seven passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
Last Saturday against Delaware State, Jennings’ production was back up with six catches for 128 yards while Sills was held to just two catches for 19 yards, including a dropped touchdown pass early in the game.
Meanwhile, their supporting cast, Ka’Raun White and Marcus Simms, caught all three of Grier’s TD throws and finished the game with a combined 10 catches for 141 yards.
“I like where they’re at now but we’ve got to continue to get better,” Holgorsen said, pointing out that Jennings and Sills left some catches and yards out on the field last Saturday.
“Sills and Jennings were not at the top of their games,” he said. “I was happy with Marcus Simms. I thought he played fast and I was happy with Ka’Raun, I thought he played fast.”
More Monday morning notes:
* Grier’s torrid start, completing 69-of-105 passes for 1,027 yards and 11 touchdowns through three games, is very comparable to Clint Trickett’s early-season numbers in 2014.
Trickett, the former Florida State transfer, completed 101 of his 134 pass tries for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception in games against Alabama, Towson and Maryland, including a career-high 511 yards passing and four touchdowns in a 40-37 victory in College Park.
Trickett was well on his way to challenging many of Geno Smith’s WVU passing records until a concussion suffered in the TCU game severely limited his play for the remainder of the season.
He tried just four passes against Texas, and then missed the Kansas and Iowa State games entirely. Trickett also did not play in the Mountaineers’ 45-37 loss to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl to conclude his Mountaineer career.
* Holgorsen was asked Monday morning how he evaluates good defensive play these days with the proliferation of explosive, wide-open offenses and ever-changing rules seemingly skewed toward even more scoring.
“Scoring defense is the most important stat out there,” Holgorsen said.
Composite statistics released by the NCAA last year back that up.
College teams averaged more than 30 points per game for the first time ever in 2016, a mean increase of nearly four points per game since 2000.
Average points per game have increased incrementally ever since then, inching up to 28 points per game in 2007 and then to 29.5 points per game in 2012. Among Power 5 Conferences, the Big 12 had the highest scoring average at 33.6 points per game last year.
Considering the number of explosive offenses in the Big 12 this season, that number could be even higher in 2017.
“I think a lot of people used to spend way too much time focusing on yards per game or plays per game, those sort of things because they kind of go hand in hand,” Holgorsen explained. “But points per game is where it’s at. Doing a great job of holding them to field goals in the red zone is certainly very important, creating turnovers at some point in the drive is very important, and field position is incredibly important.”
Therefore, based on that there is still plenty of room for improvement for the Mountaineers.
The defense is allowing 22.3 points per game, up from 21.3 points per game through three games a year ago; it has generated five turnovers so far (one less than 2016) and poor field position was the primary reason West Virginia dropped its season-opening game to Virginia Tech.
* Holgorsen also got a question about the possibility of playing a rematch against season-ending opponent Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game one week after its regular season meeting in Norman on November 25.
The way things are shaking out through the first three games, that’s probably the most likely scenario of a two-week rematch happening this season.
The other conference games on the final week of the season will pit Oklahoma State against Kansas, TCU against Baylor, Texas Tech against Texas and Iowa State against Kansas State.
“I think it’s very positive that the Big 12 is having a championship game and I feel like we’ve needed one since I’ve been in the league the last five years,” he said. “That Championship Saturday needs to be a championship game. That’s positive and I think it’s going to be really good for the conference to have their best two teams playing that Saturday, and the guaranteed two best teams playing that Saturday.”
But a rematch in the championship game, one week later?
“The only concern from the coaches is if that matchup happens,” Holgorsen conceded. “If we had to play Oklahoma two weeks in a row it would be tough, but it’s reality and it’s happened in other conferences as well. The biggest thing is if you knew you were going to play that team (again), and that game really didn’t count so to speak, but I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge if we’re in that position.”
One intriguing possibility is Big 12 teams in the future structuring their season-ending schedules to include non-conference games during Thanksgiving weekend leading into Championship Saturday.
“That’s kind of an interesting suggestion and I never really thought of that,” Holgorsen admitted.
* Despite Kansas’ losses to Mid-American foes Central Michigan and Ohio, Holgorsen sees a vastly improved Jayhawk team with a bunch of new players trying to learn how to play together.
“They look better,” Holgorsen said. “I know they’re disappointed in the outcomes of the last two games, but they were both incredibly competitive games. A couple of breaks here and a couple of breaks there and they could be sitting at 3-0.
“We all know they’ve done a good job of recruiting the last couple of years,” Holgorsen continued. “I think the biggest thing I see is they’ve got a plan in all phases. They’re sound in all phases and they know what they want to do. It’s just a matter of getting all of their new guys caught up. They’ve brought in a whole bunch of transfers and those are brand new players I think are good players, they’re just going to get used to playing within the schemes that they want.”
Holgorsen said building a successful program from scratch involves having a solid plan first, followed by getting good players. The next step is executing the plan.
Kansas can check two of those boxes. The third box is the one yet to be checked.
“We need to be prepared for their best game this season, that’s for dang sure, starting Big 12 ball,” Holgorsen concluded.
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