Losing a whole bunch of production and experience isn’t necessarily an automatic reset situation—it depends on where you’re losing the experience, for one, and also if you recruit consistently at a high level, it tends to be easier to fill gaps. The more talented your replacements, the quicker they tend to learn on the job as well.
NC State was fortunate last year to return a lot on offense last season, including its standout quarterback, which helped to mitigate the attrition that hit the defense hard. That’s one way to successfully navigate heavy losses, as we saw.
West Virginia, however, has not been so fortunate. The Mountaineers endured a more significant talent drain, one that did not come with the safety net of having an NFL-caliber quarterback—not to mention NFL-caliber receivers—still on hand. They lost 157 starts on the offensive side, which gutted the offensive line and also meant saying goodbye to quarterback Will Grier and his top four targets.
The WVU defense lost 149 starts.
Throw all of that in with a new coaching staff and the upheaval starts to look unmanageable—if managing it would be, say, getting to a bowl game. SP+ sees a break-even campaign unlikely, as it currently ballparks the Mountaineers at four total wins.
The offense is the biggest problem, for sure. The Mountaineers rank just 95th in offensive SP+ through the first two games, mostly obscuring the fact that the defense has been okay (46th).
West Virginia fell well short of cracking 5.0 yards per play (which isn’t exactly a high benchmark) in either of its first two games; last season, this team fell short of 5.0 only once.
The Mountaineers’ running game has been nonexistent, with only 64 yards on 56 carries. Obviously it helps to ease in a new starting quarterback with some support from the ground, and this team has not been able to provide that luxury.
There has been blood. I mentioned on Tuesday that WVU has given up a bunch of tackles for loss—enough to put them in the bottom five of FBS in that category. The Mountaineers have been smacked off schedule at a high rate.
Top 5 offenses in avoiding havoc:— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 10, 2019
1 Temple 4% havoc rate allowed
2 Air Force 5%
3 K-State 5%
4 Bama 6%
5 Army 7%
121 UNM 22%
122 Kent St 23%
123 TXST 23%
124 Miami 24%
125 UCLA 24%
126 GT 24%
127 USF 24%
128 WVU 26%
129 FAU 26%
130 Akron 27%https://t.co/MPnTakKr33
(Havoc rate = percentage of plays that resulted in a TFL, forced fumble, interception, or pass defensed.)
So a quarter of WVU’s snaps have gone for, at best, zero yards. And at worst, they’ve either lost yardage or turned the ball over. Cry havoc, and let slip the ... oh, no, my entrails. Coach! (furiously trying to corral entrails, which have exploded all over the hashmarks) Coach! The buzzards again! (shooing away buzzards) Where’s the buzzard stick?! Coach? ... SHOO. Shoo.
Without run support, and buried as they have been at times, the Mountaineers are tossing interceptions at nearly double the rate they were in 2018, when WVU quarterbacks collectively averaged an interception thrown every 45 attempts. They are at 1-per-23 in 2019.
First-year starter Austin Kendall has been okay in the sense that he is completing about 63% of his throws, but that’s been at the expense of doing much of anything down the field. He is averaging only 5.9 yards per attempt, which is a dramatic decline from Will Grier’s 9.7.
At receiver, touchdown machine David Sills (33 TD receptions over 2017 and 2018) is gone, as is Gary Jennings, who accounted for 13 touchdown grabs last year. Kendall is still figuring out which receivers on this year’s team he can best rely on.
The offense’s struggles make plenty of sense given all of this. What is there for Kendall or coaches to lean on? It’s not realistic to expect this offense to be more than average at best, saddled as it is with so many challenges. Few programs are safely insulated from the potential of a year like this; sometimes these are the breaks and it’s nobody’s fault.
West Virginia’s defense may continue to hold its own over the course of the season, but most likely 2019 will be defined by the Mountaineers’ limitations offensively. Those are the limitations that are often most visible to fans, after all.