Film Room: WVU – East Carolina
Pluses and minuses in the return game, tactics with multiple wide receiver sets and more are in the spotlight of our film review of WVU and East Carolina.
West Virginia made a big scheme change on kickoff returns, going from a five-man front and two deep returners to a six-man front wall and just one deep. With Marcus Simms deep, WVU now has the speed to get to the ball no matter where it is kicked, and that also puts an extra blocker closer to the opposing kickoff team, hopefully allowing for one more defender to get picked off before getting downfield and allowing Sims extra room. Coupled with Simms direct upfield running style, which he displayed on every return, those changes were mostly positive. Simms’ kickoff returns were excellent, giving the Mountaineers better field position.
However, there was one disappointing outcome: West Virginia allowed an onside kick that it had no chance of recovering. Only an early touch by ECU kicker Caleb Pratt kept the Pirates from one of the easiest recoveries in the history of onside kicks. On this play, West Virginia had Reggie Roberson and Martell Pettaway as the two closest players to the ball. They both began retreating to blocking positions when Pratt was still three strides away from kicking it, and by the time he actually touched it they both nearly 15 yards off the ball. Pettaway never got back to make a play on the ball, and Roberson was very late, as Pratt touched the ball while both were still more than four yards from it.
This violates a basic tenet of kickoff returns – the player(s) closest to the kick have to make sure the ball is sent deep before retreating. Neither did in this case, and while it wouldn’t have made any difference in this contest, you can bet WVU will see an onside attempt again at some point.
Pettaway was in as a sub for Kennedy McKoy, who held down front line assignments with Osman Kamara, Deamonte Lindsay, Druw Bowen and Hodari Christian on the front rank. Brendan Ferns, Adam Hensley and Ezikiel Rose comprise the second row, with Elijah Wellman the up back in front of Simms.
On the flip side, WVU went with kickoffs either aimed into the corner, or with a high, short and mid-field boot with extra height to allow more coverage. That was generally successful, save for one of the former that went out of bounds.
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There was more bad than good on returns, though. Simms and Tevin Bush combined for good yardage on punt returns, and didn’t let any bounce, although each had to eke out a sliding catch to keep that slate clean. That’s not optimal, and both will need to continue to work on judging the ball in the air to get better jumps on it.
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There was a ton of discussion over the summer about WVU mixing up the use and alignment of its fullbacks and tight ends, but that wasn’t apparent in this game. In the series that were mostly first teamers (all the first half and the first two possessions of the second half), Elijah Wellman lined up in the backfield 27 times, as a wingback three times, and in the slot or as a tight end zero times. Granted, those definitions are a bit loose. Wellman’s primary alignment was behind the tackle, or in the tackle-guard gap, and a couple of yards off the ball, but we’re classifying that as “backfield” because he is inside the tackles and still set to be a primary blocker.
WVU likely kept this vanilla and didn’t show him elsewhere (he was in a true running back spot just a couple of times, mostly in goal line situations where he and Trevon Wesco teamed up in the inverse wishbone with a runner behind them). However, late in the contest, Wellman slipped out of the backfield and ran down the hash for a wide open completion, and only one decision on a cut inside vs. outside kept him out of the end zone.
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There was concern, as usual, over West Virginia’s pass rush. The Mountaineers didn’t get home for a sack, but they did get decent pressure, including in-your-face hits from Reese Donahue, Dylan Tonkery and Al-Rasheed Benton that prevented completions. Also keeping the sack totals down was an early focus on ECU getting rid of the ball quickly. In the first half plus those first two third quarter drives, ECU threw the ball quickly ten times, with many of those seeing the ball come out in less than a couple of seconds. There were seven passes that we’d quantify as “normal”, with a longer hold rate and deeper drop, but it was clear that the Pirates focused on getting the ball out very early and not taking sacks. Sometimes, that’s just as effective in pass defense as knocking a ball down.
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And now for those bunch routes. We’ve mentioned them a couple of times over the past week, but WVU is doing some really interesting things out of its two and three receiver sets on one side. Against ECU, the Mountaineers again lined up with three receivers staggered wide to one side, and this time threw a slant route to the middle receiver in the formation. Against Virginia Tech, the slant went to a different receiver, and there’s no doubt that offensive coordinator Jake Spavital is setting up even more out of this alignment. Another slant to a different receiver? Wide receiver screen? Releases for all into the secondary? Fake the screen or slant and go deep? All are in play, and we’ve seen some of that with the twins concept on either side of the formation.
Another item to track has been outside passing in the red zone. Defensive backs, quite properly, have been trying to take away slants, as WVU has been better at getting those completed, as seen above. However, the overplay has gotten so heavy that Sills and Ka’Raun White both snared relatively easy high and outside passes beyond the Pirate corners. Granted, ECU isn’t good, but the execution, the throws and the catches were all first rate. Defensive backs are going to have a tough time overprotecting inside routes down close, and that’s important, because West Virginia still has to prove that it can pound the ball in on running plays from short range.
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Two final quick thoughts. First, we’re sure that Tyree Owens didn’t envision two personal fouls on his return to the campus where he started his collegiate career. The Pirate defensive lineman was clearly frustrated after the second call, and was taken out of the game to cool off.
Second, if the West Virginia offensive staff doesn’t want Will Grier to take hits, then don’t call zone read runs. I understand their thinking on limiting the wear and tear on his body, especially given the way recent WVU QBs like Clint Trickett and Skyler Howard have been beaten up in years past. However, if that is the goal, then you can’t put him in a position where the best choice on a play might call for him to keep the ball.