Plans Of Attack, Counterattack Story of WVU Win
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s pretty much a guarantee that West Virginia will see every sort of defensive maneuver possible this year. With a high-powered offense that is a threat to score from anywhere on the field, the Mountaineers will get just about any look imaginable.
The twin goals for the opposition? One, try to stop big plays. Two, disrupt West Virginia’s continuity in the hopes that it will become anxious and force the issue.
Youngstown State, with defensive-minded head coach Bo Pelini, came up with a look that was something of a throwback to the old Southwest Conference days of defending against the run and shoot. Pelini used his standard four man line, but often had just one other defender in the box. On occasion there were two, but usually the defense was so far backed off that it appeared at times to be up in the stands rather than on the field.
The twist, though, came before or at the snap. Upon the start of the play, a safety, or sometimes two, would hurriedly move toward the line of scrimmage. It was the ultimate bait-and-switch, as Pelini was trying to either get WVU to run the ball, then swarm its backs with mobile defenders, or more optimally, goad the West Virginia offense into forcing the ball downfield into coverage.
“The message going in tonight was that the story was going to be the running backs and the safeties,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital explained. “They are team that is going to give you a favorable box to run into, but then fill with safeties from depth. Many times in the game there were just four defensive linemen in the box and everybody else was out.”
Sounds simple enough. The read for the QB is a count of defenders in the box, and four isn’t anywhere near the cutoff line of six or seven that brings pass into the equation. The problem though, was the timing. When the Penguins got it just right, they could get WVU to run it, then fill gaps with crashing safeties and present the Mountaineers with nowhere to run. Of course, that’s just the theory. In practice, it’s something else.
Sometimes, the defenders were a bit late in arriving. Often enough, the Mountaineers blocked them well enough anyway to result in a steady diet of four, five or six-yard gains. Again, YSU was willing to accept that, and hope that WVU would get antsy, but for the most part that didn’t happen. A couple of forced passes into coverage in the first quarter (one resulting in Will Grier’s only interception of the year to date) gave Peline and his crew some hope, but Spavital settled his players quickly.
“We started off the game and Will wanted to bomb it when a lot of the intermediate throws were open,” WVU’s second year offensive coordinator recounted. “We had to get the run game popping a little bit until we got the opportunity to throw it over the top of a couple of times.”
Again, the key was patience. Those runs and mid-range passes turned into touchdown drives. And when the time was right, Spavital and Grier caught Youngstown charging a little too hard in the secondary, they unleashed the deep routes again. Grier found Gary Jennings on a pair of routes behind the Penguin defense, and had a third lined up, but missed David Sills when he overthrew him running unmolested down the middle of the field. Those couple of mistakes aside, though, Grier was again excellent.
“Just getting through the progressions and getting through the checkdowns,” was Spavital’s estimation of Grier’s keys to success. “Just get down to the intermediate throws. I thought he played very efficiently and on third down he was pretty high percentage.”
Indeed. Grier was 6-9 for 96 yards on third down, with all of those completions resulting in first downs. The Mountaineers were 8-12 overall on third and fourth down, keeping possessions alive and thwarting YSU’s plans to hold the ball away from them. Still, it wasn’t easy.
“What they do defensively is tough,” Spavital exhaled. “There’s a reason why Coach Pelini has so much success as a head coach. He knows what he is doing. It’s a tough scheme to go up against.”
True — and it won’t be the last exotic look West Virginia sees this year.