Musings On Corner, Defensive Line & More For This Mountaineer Match-up
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s a cliche, and we’re going to use it.
This game isn’t just more about West Virginia than its opponent. It’s all about West Virginia. This is one of those rare, once-in-a-decade or more games where seemingly no matter how bad the Mountaineers play, they can’t lose. That’s a mathematical impossibility, obviously, but there’s little question Delaware State is the worst team to enter Milan Puskar Stadium in its 37-year history.
The stats are there, from zero second half points thus far and just 18 scored in two games, to the 2.5 yards per rush and third down issues that compound a lack of ability to slow anything defensively. This is a program that enters having lost 33 of their last 36, and that’s just a one-point win away from having lost the last 29 consecutive games. It’s over. WVU will win this going away. The question is what can the Mountaineers get out of such an outing?
With the offensive line having allowed just three sacks in 170 plays, WVU averaging 40 points per game, rolling up more than 600 yards – including a series-record 592 versus Virginia Tech – and generally operating efficiently and effectively over the last six quarters, we’ll take a look at the flip side and the concerns for Tony Gibson and crew.
They are myriad. Most concerning, and this has been expressed, is the cornerback position. Elijah Battle and Hakeem Bailey have struggled, to the point where both are giving up well more than 50 percent completion rates when targeted in ma coverage. Battle had a late pass interference that hurt WVU in the opener, while Bailey got turned around badly against East Carolina, allowing an opponent record-long 95-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Mike Daniels has fared better, showing some physicality and ability to match-up in the speed and agility skill sets. That leaves Corey Winfield, who was expected to make an early splash into the secondary, perhaps holding down one starting slot. But the Syracuse transfer’s tape showed issues, mainly that even some of his highlights came when balls simply went through receivers hands and fell into his for interceptions. The second concern – and this might be the bigger one – is that Winfield played primarily zone defense with the Orange. He was rarely pressed into man, and very seldom saw any true cover zero with no safety help.
Thus, he hasn’t developed the habits and intricacies of playing on an island, as Gibson often demands of his corners. That, in turn, allows the defense to bring added pressure and mix and move the safeties around the create confusion, or aid in the run game. And as Gibson stated, WVU has to “play with confidence at that position. If not, we are not going to be able to do what we do. We aren’t going to be able to pressure people, and in this league you can’t survive without pressuring the quarterback.”
Especially this season. Consider that the Big 12 has four of the top 10 quarterbacks in terms of passing efficiency. Three of them are named Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph and Nic Shimonek. The fourth is Kansas State’s Jesse Ertz, the kind of silent assassin that slices secondaries apart with little fanfare but extreme effectiveness. WVU has to get at least one more solid stater to play opposite Daniels, and the Mountaineers have shuffled the deck in looking for it.
Gibson moved the 6-foot-2 Kenny Robinson from safety to corner in an effort to bolster the talent there. The defensive staff actually thought Robinson was a corner when they recruited him, but a need for depth at safety saw him slide into the free spot behind Dravon Askew-Henry. Unable to beat out Askew-Henry (quite the tall task there), Robinson was bounced back outside prior to the ECU game, and played a handful of snaps at the position late.
There’s a significant chance Robinson gets major time against Delaware State, and the odds lean toward a potential start. Look for Robinson and Daniels as the primary corners, and keep an eye on the play of the freshman. Gibson likes his approach, mindset and tenacity – not to mention his confidence. “Fearless” is what Gibson used to describe the Pittsburgh native; One has to have a short memory playing corner, and Robinson seems to relish each new play as a unique challenge onto itself.
Keep an eye on his footwork and ability to flip his hips and run with the wideouts. DSU won’t challenge the Mountaineers like most teams, but this goes back to the idea that the game is more about West Virginia. Can Robinson play on an island? Is he physical enough, at 6-2 and 202 pounds and without a full year in a college strength and conditioning program, to match-up at this level. If he can’t do it this weekend against the Hornets, he can’t do it.
It’s also worth eyeing the defensive line. West Virginia seems to have found a second nose tackle in Lamonte McDougle, and the 5-10, 295-pound freshman will get a bigger workload this weekend in mixing in with Xavier Pegues. Adam Shuler and Reese Donahue are established at end, but what of Ezekiel Rose? Jalen Harvey? Jaleel Fields? Those names have been absent for major stretches – and in Fields’ case haven’t played a snap – and WVU needs to build numbers over the next three weeks before a key contest at TCU.
The line has held up effectively thus far. But there’s what position coach Bruce Tall calls the “moment of truth.” He noted WVU’s grades across the line were higher than against Virginia Tech, which shows improvement. But at key moments in the game – third downs, red zones, chances to create negative yardage plays – the group isn’t yet where he’d like. Then there’s the issue of the ability to hold the point of attack.
“When the ball hits our gaps, we have to have great gap integrity,” Tall said. “That’s what we have to clean up. We have to fix that. We’ve just gotta make the plays. We have to wrap up, squeeze and escape block combinations. It’s sharpening up our fundamentals.”
Check the line, and see if it is able to first get the proper fit, then execute and get off blocks and finish the tackle. Head coach Dana Holgorsen also noted that there were far too many times, on both sides of the ball, where players were taking OTG snaps, or those where he ends up On The Ground. That’s a difficult place from which to block or tackle.
“We grade it every single day in practice,” Tall said. “We hold them accountable for being down there. What it is is guys go too hard and they’re out of control. They have to be able to control their bodies. We don’t want them to play slower. We still want them to play fast, but under control. You do us no good if you play fast on the ground.”
Check out more below from Tall, including his take on McDougle, what in the world Shuler has to do to draw a holding penalty, and how he’s challenged his unit this week.