A Look Inside The Key Facets As West Virginia Tries To Match A Stout Texas D
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Making the routine will make for the win.
That was the idea from West Virginia receivers coach Tyron Carrier going into the match-up versus Texas. Because just like against Kansas State, it appears the secondary is ripe for the picking while the front could be a tough nut to crack.
Let’s check some numbers. First, Texas ranks second in the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense, allowing 115 yards and 22 points per game. Those numbers are stellar, especially when transposed atop a check of what has been allowed against marquee foes, namely the seven points against Iowa State, the 13 allowed to Oklahoma State (the Pokes average 49.3 ppg otherwise) and the 29 in a loss to Oklahoma. Even in an early setback versus USC, the Longhorns showcased a physical style and matched the Trojans power run game in giving up 27 points in overtime.
Texas is flexing its strength defensively via a roster build-up by former head coach Charlie Strong. Those recruiting classes have come of age, and now UT starts eight juniors, two seniors and a sophomore on defense. The front seven is all upperclassmen, and the combined size and athleticism, not to mention a nose in in 305-pounder Poona Ford who eats space, has meshed to hold most foes below the 145-yard mark.
That’s key for the ‘Horns, who are 0-4 when allowing more than that number. That’s a good target area for West Virginia as well. WVU averages 162 yards per game, and it needs to be around that number (140 or so) to keep teams honest and allow the passing game more freedom. West Virginia rushed for 120 yards versus Kansas State last week and had 114 versus Texas last year.
Both those games came with second half lulls, however, and with another potential rainy day Saturday, being able to churn out a few more yards via the rush is imperative. The problem is UT is bent on stopping that first. They use the three down linemen, then add pieces round them via a rover player in stud Malik Jefferson (6-3, 240 lbs.), a rush linebacker and at times a nickel back that can play inside the box. It makes for a numbers issue while allowing coordinator Tood Orlando greater flexibility.
If WVU is going to run, it must stalemate Ford at nose, even if it takes a pair of blockers, and be able to churn out yards after contact while getting vertical quickly. That will all be tough sledding, so where the Mountaineers will make their offensive money is again in the passing game. WVU blew out Orlando when he was at UConn from 2005-10, but this is a vastly different talent level.
“They’re extremely good, in my opinion, in the front seven,” running backs coach Tony Dews said. “Not that their secondary isn’t, but watching them play, they have a lot of good looking kids on film. They play extremely hard and run around very well. Their defensive line is a big strong group. That nose guard makes it all go, and Malik Jefferson there in the middle. I have heard, in my career, when people talk about a defense that is strong down the middle, then they usually have a pretty good defense. We’re starting with the nose guard, the three-man front, then the middle backer and then their safeties. They do an excellent job.”
Texas is in the nations top 10 in third and fourth down defense and defensive touchdowns with six. What’s spurring that is winning on first and second downs in slowing the run game. West Virginia has to win individual battles on the perimeter, and allow Will Grier a clean pocket to throw. Hit a few shorter routes and a handful of decent runs early in downs and distances, and it takes the edge away from the third down abilities.
WVU can ill afford the mistakes it made in previous games, where a series of drops hurt the offense and caused prt of the second half shutouts. Gary Jennings had a drop. Ka’Raun White had a couple. David Sills dropped a key third down pass that would have put WVU in scoring position with a fresh set of downs. And Grier had a pair of interceptions go directly off receivers’ hands to K-State defenders.
“Catch the ball. That’s just routine plays that we have to make,” Carrier said. “The biggest emphasis is just catching the ball, no matter what the conditions are we have to make that play. They got open. They worked technique and got open. That wasn’t a problem playing man coverage. We play that every day with our defense. They are coached up on that. It was just catching the ball more than anything.”
The plays have been available, and against the Texas corners West Virginia should be able to again create separation and be open to make plays. Grier rarely delivers a truly bad ball, and if the line can hold up in pass pro, plays will be there for the Mountaineers. But they cannot have multiple drops, errant patterns or missed chances. Jake Spaavital hit among the consistency issues, and that could be a two-fold ideal in being able to sustain offense and scoring for four quarters combined with the ability to consistently make the basic plays, routine catches, blocks and throws.
The concept is that general execution of fundamentals will make for offensive efficiency overall. Keep an eye on WVU’s wideouts and the separation and space they have to operate, as well as how well they are catching and securing the ball. Also check downs and distances, and see if the Mountaineers can hold the nose at its initial point of contact and not allow Ford to flow upfield or disrupt the offense in its own backfield.
If the Mountaineers can piece together those two areas, and simply make basic plays and avoid mistakes, they can move the ball against what is once again a very sizable Texas defense that shrinks passing windows and scrapes well to track down ball carriers with with a trio of linebackers/rover players that are all 6-foot-3 or taller. Not a single starter on UT’s defense is smaller than 6-0, 200-plus pounds, with one corner in Davante Davis at 6-foot-3 and middle ‘backer Anthony Wheeler a 6-3, 235-pounder.
That size helps shrink the margin for error for opposing offenses. It’s why making plays when there are opportunities has become the focal point of the offensive prep for this week, and it’s what will enable the Mountaineers to rival the more successful passing attacks vs Texas like USC’s 397 yards and the 344 rolled up by Oklahoma.
“They’re pretty strong, solid down the middle and they obviously have a bunch of guys of other guys that are running around over there,” Dews said. “In their nickel and dime personnel, they have some very athletic guys who, when there’s a hole or it looks like a hole is there, are able to close things quickly because they close on the ball well and attack the football. Then they do a great job of mixing up a ton of blitzes. So, they’re coming from all over the place. Sometimes I think there’s 13 guys out there.”