Film Room: WVU – Kansas
We put West Virginia’s defensive line on the clicker in this week’s edition of the film room, and also examine Will Grier’s talent for extending plays and what it means for the Mountaineer offense.
Kansas, hardly known as a running team, came into the West Virginia game with the plan to pound the ball at the Mountaineer defense. Often lining up in a diamond backfield formation, KU set an individual rushing record for a WVU opponent. What happened up front?
First, and foremost, as pointed out by our Matt Keller, West Virginia was abysmal at getting off blocks. When Kansas offensive linemen got into the Mountaineer defense, WVU stayed blocked. There were very few occurrences where a defender (and even linebackers) shed tackles to make a stop.
In addition, WVU’s linemen didn’t get much penetration against the Kansas front. Even if a lineman can’t make a tackle (and this defense doesn’t depend on that), he can disrupt plays by getting penetration, which can alter blocking angles or force backs to hesitate or alter their running path, allowing additional defenders to get to the play. Charting that factor, WVU didn’t get a defensive lineman across the line of scrimmage in a position to disrupt on 28 of Kansas’ 45 runs. We didn’t count penetration for a defender that was allowed to cross the line of scrimmage because he was unblocked or because he was invited to do so as part of the blocking scheme, but did give credit when he was able to cause a problem with the play. Twenty-eight times, KU got a clean run to the line of scrimmage, into the hole and beyond.
WVU did a little better against the pass. Again, counting just the defensive linemen, the Mountaineers got pressure on the Kansas pocket 13 times. Nineteen times it did not, but that’s not a bad ratio, given the way the West Virginia defense is built. Still, the overall numbers tell the tale. WVU must get more penetration and pressure, if not more tackles, from its front wall.
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Conversation on Will Grier this week has been focused on his protection of himself, his less than perfect sliding form and the need for him to avoid hits. Those are fair topics, but the importance of his ability to extend plays also jumps off our old silver screen. Nine times, Grier extended plays from the pocket against Kansas, and the results, while not eye-popping, tell a very good story. Six times he ended up running with the ball, gaining a total of 46 yards while never losing one. Only one run resulted in a first down, but the importance here lies in the fact that he turned potential negative plays into positive ones. Three times he did get passes away, going 1-3 for five yards with the other two falling incomplete. Again, no staggering numbers there, but no negative, drive-killing plays either. That’s very important, and a factor that is often overlooked.
One place where Grier does need to improve is with his ball security. He’s a bit freewheeling as a runner, and that extends to the way he carries the rock. At the end of one second quarter carry, Kansas did poke the ball away from him on a tackle, and only the sideline and a fortunate bounce over the border prevented a Jayhawk recovery.
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It got lost in the attention on Kansas’ running game, but West Virginia’s interior blocking on the offensive line was stellar. Kyle Bosch, Matt Jones and Josh Sills, along with lead blocker Elijah Wellman, did a tremendous job of not only blocking but moving a very good Kansas defensive front, allowing the interior running game to thrive. That let the Mountaineers counter Kansas’ rushing performance, evening out the time of possession after an eight-minute first quarter deficit, and keeping the Jayhawk defense off balance. KU’s defensive front is by far the best unit on the team, and it recorded just one sack for minus one yard and only three yards of rushing losses.
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A look at West Virginia’s offensive formations shows that the Mountaineers are limiting, as much as possible, mid-drive substitutions. While the formations themselves change, personnel often does not. That’s often centered on the presence of Elijah Wellman. When he’s in, he lines up either in the backfield or in the staggered wing position, leaving three wide receivers in the formation. When out, WVU has been using twin receivers on each side of the set in recent games, but showed more three and one against the Jayhawks. Again notably absent, other than some special situations, was a second fullback or tight end.
This doesn’t mean that West Virginia doesn’t substitute at all during drives. It does at times. But in doing so, that slows the pace at which plays can be run, because a Mountaineer sub means an automatic halt to play while the defense is given the opportunity to make a matching substitution. If offensive coordinator Jake Spavital sees his group on a roll, he might hold off on bringing in the extra wideout or getting Wellman back in the game. These sorts of decisions can be tough ones, and have to be made quickly, with the play clock running and the offense waiting for the call. What’s the better move to make? Stick with the lineup on the field, or go with another play that looks really good for the current situation, but which requires a sub or two? Those choices play out many times during the game, and are one of the reasons coordinators are so mentally exhausted after games.
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When all that decision-making and tactical planning comes together, there’s still the final elements of luck and execution that can blow things up. One example from each team illustrated that perfectly.
Kansas executed a reverse pass that saw a receiver come wide open, but Steven Simms pass fluttered short and behind him, negating what would have been either a long gain or a touchdown. On another, WVU’s Elijah Battle had an interception lined up, but safety Dravon Askew-Henry flew in front of him at the last moment, deflecting and failing to come up with the ball. That wasn’t Askew-Henry’s fault — just one of those lucky-unlucky plays that can turn games around.