Column - WVU special teams must play better
Published: Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 23:11
Special teams play has been a major struggle for the No. 23 West Virginia football team all season.
They've fumbled on several kickoff and punt returns, had punts going for 12 yards, missed extra points and missed tackles.
But all of those statistics go out the window Thursday night during the Mountaineers final regular season game against South Florida.
It's going to be an extremely hostile environment in Tampa, Fla. And USF isn't going to let up one bit as it will try to ruin West Virginia's chances of getting to a BCS bowl game.
The Mountaineers have not played well on the road against the Bulls. Their last win against USF in Florida came back in 2005 in a 28-13 victory.
In the last two meetings since, WVU has not scored more than 20 points against USF away from Milan Puskar Stadium.
Against Pitt last week, West Virginia had three kick returns for a grand total of seven yards. Let me say that again – seven. Oh, and punt returns were even worse. WVU returned two punts for two yards, including a fumble by junior receiver Tavon Austin that led to a field goal.
For the season, the Mountaineers average 22.7 yards per kick return and 12.2 yards per punt return, ranking No. 40 and No. 18 in the nation, respectively.
That is surprisingly good, considering how many mistakes the team has made on all areas of the special teams unit.
The Mountaineer coverage team will have to do a superb job Thursday as South Florida has allowed just three punt return yards all season.
Whoever goes out there for returns, whether it is Austin for senior Devon Brown or anyone else – they have to be ready for the challenge.
They have to know when to call for a fair catch or when to tell the blockers to get out of the way, and let the ball hit the ground without anyone touching it.
Winning the field position battle makes a huge difference in the game and making the right decisions during returns is the key to executing it.
It looks like punter redshirt junior punter Corey Smith will get the start against USF, after averaging 57.2 yards on four punts against Pitt. The big question is whether or not he can stay consistent for another game, or two.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen has talked all year about improving the special teams unit and getting better every week.
The major problem for WVU has been playing well one week and horribly the next. Well, it made mistakes in a dismal effort in the Backyard Brawl against Pitt, so maybe that is a good omen for the game against South Florida.
The last time a WVU player had a punt return for a touchdown was in 2006. The last kick return for a touchdown was the first game of the season against Marshall, thanks to Tavon Austin. It would be nice to see him break another one in the last regular season game.
"This game is what this team is going to be remembered for," Holgorsen said at his weekly press conference Monday.
"You can take the rest of the games, and you can delete them. You can erase them, you can forget them. What this team is going to be remembered for is by what happens this weekend at South Florida," he said.
"We're playing a very good team. Their record doesn't reflect what kind of a team they are, how well-coached they are, or what kind of players they have. We fully expect to get their best."
Hopefully, West Virginia saved its best special teams performance for last, because it may come down to one important play that wins the game and sends the Mountaineers to a BCS game after all.