West Virginia strikes a balance on offense

The West Virginia offense has evolved into something more than Geno Smith and Noel Devine. Icon SMI

West Virginia faced a third-and-2 early in the second quarter against Marshall. Before the snap, Matt Timmerman shifted from left tackle to the right side to form an unbalanced line.

After the snap, tight end Will Johnson (238 pounds) followed behind Timmerman. Fullback Matt Lindamood (234 pounds) served as another blocker out of the I-formation. Ryan Clarke (247 pounds) took the handoff and rumbled 4 yards behind all that beef for the first down.

That mountainous Mountaineer package offered a hint that's been confirmed by the stats through three games: This is a different kind of West Virginia offense.

No longer does the offense rely just on small, speedy backs and quarterback runs. LSU's defense must prepare for a balanced, multi-faceted attack on Saturday.

"Two years ago against Colorado, we couldn’t get a first down because I didn’t have any tight ends or fullbacks," head coach Bill Stewart said. "I had little skill guys and slots. I didn’t have any Will Johnson because he just converted, or Tyler Urban, or Ryan Clarke because he wasn’t doing what I wanted and now I have a 238-pound chiseled man.

"So, we have to become well-rounded, and we have more in the arsenal. It’s called spreading the wealth and keeping people off balance."

The additional poundage has helped, but nothing has aided the offensive transformation more than the emergence of sophomore quarterback Geno Smith as a precision pocket passer.

Smith is completing 70.3 percent of his throws; the school record for completion percentage in a season is Pat White's 66.7 percent in 2007. He has already thrown eight touchdown passes, or four fewer than the Mountaineers had all of last season.

Smith can run, but that's rarely his first option. His only two runs of more than 10 yards this season came as he scrambled against a Marshall prevent defense in the fourth-quarter comeback. West Virginia is averaging 226 passing yards per game this season, up from 191 per game in 2009 and 151 in '08.

The play calling reflects that balance as well. The Mountaineers have rushed 136 times this year and passed it 107 times, a 56-44 ratio. Last year, the ratio was 59-41 in favor of the run, and in '08 it was tilted 63-37 toward the run.

Last week against Maryland, Smith tossed four touchdown passes in the first 33 minutes, and West Virginia used the power running of Clarke behind Lindamood to help run out the clock late. No wonder the Mountaineers tried a double-pass trick play in the third quarter; when you've got that many toys, you want to play with them.

"We've got more options," offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen told the Charleston Daily Mail after the Maryland win. "We don't have to throw it on every down just like we don't have to run it on every down. We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things."

They've still got the small skill guys in Noel Devine, Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin. But they're also developing receivers like Stedman Bailey and tight end Johnson, who caught the touchdown near the end of regulation in the Marshall win.

"Those guys really make a defensive coordinator look at this offense differently than they did a couple years ago," Smith said.