MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s easy to tell that special teams are critically important to WVU head football coach Neal Brown.
Whether it be analyzing his team or the opponent, Brown typically starts his Media Monday scouting reports with a special teams breakdown. This was no different Monday after the 24-21 win over TCU in which special teams played a major role in the Mountaineers’ victory.
“I really feel like we won the game because of special teams,” Brown said. “I think the positives [are] obviously, we had two blocked field goals. Our field goal block unit has really done well all year. And you’ve all heard me say this a couple weeks in a row, we [were] really close to blocking one. Well, we went and got two, which was huge.”
The playmaking element of the WVU special teams unit was apparent against TCU with a pair of blocked field goals and two 15-plus yard punt returns. The Mountaineers also did the little things right, too, just like they did in their previous three wins.
According to CFB Graphs, WVU’s net starting field position score of 6.12 is the fourth-best in the country, trailing only Liberty, Maryland and Penn State. In concrete terms, the Mountaineers average starting field position is at its own 34-yard line, almost one whole set of downs further than the default start point of the 25-yard line.
On average, WVU opponents are starting at their own 26-yard line. The Mountaineers, statistically, are playing on a field that is eight yards shorter than their opponents.
Brown credits a portion of that advantage to redshirt freshman punt returner Preston Fox. Through five games, Fox leads the Big 12 in punt-return yards (137), and his average of 12.5 yards per return is fourth-best in the conference.
“We’ve blocked for him better, and then he’s stealing first downs in the return game, and he’s done a nice job,” Brown said.
The Mountaineers are also 4-0 in games in which they won the field position battle, and 0-1 in the only game in which they lost it. Against Penn State, WVU’s average starting point of the 25-yard line made for a longer field when compared to the Nittany Lions’ average start at the 32-yard line.
It was also the only game this season in which the WVU defense did not force a fumble, interception or turnover on downs.
WVU redshirt junior kicker Michael Hayes is 4-for-5 on field goals this season, and his three points were the difference in the Mountaineers win over TCU. Hayes drilled a 53-yarder through the uprights in the first half, but it was immediately called back for a WVU false start. His one miss on the season came on his subsequent attempt the next play on an unsuccessful 58-yard attempt as the clock hit 0:00 to end the first half.
His 49-yard field goal – which is also his longest of the season – was the eventual game-winner against the Horned Frogs. But Brown was most impressed with Hayes’ precision on kickoffs against TCU.
“Hayes came out and had a tremendous day with kickoff locations and hang time, which is the No. 1 factor on good kickoff coverage, and then our guys, really, they defeated blocks,” he said. “That was a big, big [thing]. We talked about that being the first play of defense, and I think our guys stood up to the challenge on that.”
The goal is for a similar tone to be set on punt coverages when WVU attempts to flip the field. WVU’s punting unit – led by sophomore punter Oliver Straw – is near the bottom of the conference in yards per punt (40.8), but the Mountaineers are allowing the third-fewest yards per punt return (0.1) in the conference.
Against the Horned Frogs, Straw averaged 46 yards per punt. Only two teams in the Big 12 (Texas Tech, BYU) are averaging more than 46 yards per punt on the season.
“Credit to Ollie,” Brown said. “Credit to the guys covering. We’ve got good-speed guys running down.”
So, when Brown notes that the team won the game vs. TCU because of special teams, there’s an argument that can be made about how special teams have put WVU in position – literally and figuratively – to secure all four of its wins.