WVU’s Line With Questions To Answer Against Iowa State
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Iowa State poses quite the conundrum for West Virginia’s offense.
On the surface, it appears to be a defense that has held down a series of explosive opponents while stifling the running game and forcing foes to beat it via the pass. That’s then carried into coordinator Jon Heacock’s style of forcing teams into tight windows in the passing game after getting ahead of the sticks.
It’s worked in a series of categories thus far, as the Cyclones lead the Big 12 in fewest points allowed per conference game (13.6) and turnovers gained (17) while ranking second in passing and total defense. But a view of tape shows that ISU’s defense is, like it’s offense, a high-level operator in situational defense than it is one which simply shuts everything down.
Against TCU, for example, Iowa State routinely allowed the Horned Frogs across midfield. But a penalty, a missed pass – QB Kenny Hill played his worst game of the season, with two interceptions and just 135 yards passing – a dropped ball would put TCU behind the sticks and allow ISU to play flat across the back end and keep everything in front of the sticks.
The entire premise of the defense, as played right now, is to limit the big play and force teams to methodically move down the field. It’s the antithesis to the preference of a lot of Big 12 offenses, and teams must have patience against Iowa State. It also keeps the often lesser-talented Cyclones in the game by creating fewer possessions when combined with its offense’s fundamental, more plodding style.
Because Iowa State is used to playing this way, and is fine winning 14-7, as it did against TCU, or 38-31, as it did at Oklahoma, it rarely shows the frustration of some teams, instead simply playing the next play and trying to win on points period, rather than points per possession. That, in turn, is aided by the tendency for foes to eventually force something and throw an interception, of which the Cyclones have 10.
The approach works hand-in-hand with all three sides of the ball, and will force West Virginia to take what’s available and be able to run the ball effectively enough to stay ahead of the sticks. That’s been an issue in past weeks as the production has dropped from 230-plus yard on the ground in the first fur games to 70 in the last four. That’s a major concern, especially with the lack of physicality and toughness the coaches have harped upon.
“Come off fast and play fast the while game,” WVU guard Grant Lingafelter said as to what would create success. “You can’t come off sluggish like we did against Oklahoma State. Not having three and outs. Going down there and scoring points – and scoring touchdowns, not field goals. We gotta get touchdowns, get the offense rolling and that allows us to start fast and finish fast.
“We have to worry about ourselves up front. Make sure our communication is good, make sure our points are right. Make sure the calls are right and we all know what we are doing and we are all together as one, know where each other is going so we can get the ball moving. Get (Justin) Crawford in the end zone and let Will (Grier) throw for some touchdowns.”
A look at how Iowa State played TCU shows that’s possible. The Frogs’ spread, similar to that of WVU, managed to stretch the Cyclones enough to create major running lanes for Kyle Hicks. The back ripped through Iowa State for chunks of yardage, and was able to read cutback lanes and exploit them. That will be key for Crawford and Kennedy McKoy as well.
Keep an eye on the match-up between WVU’s interior line and ISU nose guard Ray Lima. Like most odd fronts (Iowa State runs what amounts to a 3-4 look much of the time), holding the point of attack and demanding double teams is significant. At 6-4, 304 pounds, Lima is a massive nose who is a pure space eater that allows the linebackers to roam. Excellent against the rush – but mediocre at pressure – if Lima can create problems on the inside for WVU’s run, it’ll be problematic.
The Mountaineers have to be able to slide the nose where it likes, then get into the second level with whatever zone player slides off the attack the linebackers. If it can’t do that, ISU will knife into larger gaps and make plays near the line. What worked versus TCU is that because the defensive ends lined up so wide that it forced the tackles far outside, the guards were useless to help pass protect. That meant three guys ganged up on Lima, but also that the ends could loop way out and bring pressure from behind.
It’s great in theory, but it obviously opens running lanes for the quarterback. ISU negates that by having the linebackers, in an obvious passing situation, play right at the first down marker – or a bit shallower for third and very long – to allow them to come up and make plays on either a back, or the QB when he steps up. What Iowa State is doing is employing a numbers edge.
Teams must have five players to block and a passer. That leaves five offensive players able to catch passes or run. The Cyclones drop eight into coverage, shrinking windows with a two-man edge while also allowing one to keep an eye on the QB and play underneath routes. It looks brilliant when it works, but it also means long coverage times for defenders, and wideouts usually shake free after four seconds or so.
It’s why line play is so key for West Virginia. Keep ends J.D. Waggoner and JaQuan Bailey off Grier, and believe that David Sills, Ka’Raun White, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms can find the openings or shake free across the face or vertically. Easier said than done, as Waggoner is a veteran who leads the team with 7.5 TFLs while Bailey is more of a pure rusher at 6-2, 260 pounds who leads ISU in sacks.
“It’s us. We have to pick ourselves up,” Lingafelter said. “Keep Will on his feet better and help open up those running lanes for Crawford and Kennedy to start running crazy. It’s a defense that likes to drop eight and rush three. It’s patience. (WVU OC Jake Spavital) does a great job. He knows what he is doing, calls the right plays and keeps putting us in the right position to win football games. But it is patience from us, too. We have to start fast and get in the end zone fast so we can get the offense up, get our mojo going and keep it going all four quarters.”
Before that reads like a contradiction with patience juxtaposed against starting fast, understand that what Lingafelter means is the ability to execute the play selections efficiently at at tempo as desired without getting greedy. Take the five yard chunks instead of fretting about the 15-yarders, and move down the field and finish.
Frankly, one can’t expect ISU to beat themselves. One of just two teams in the nation to not have lost a fumble this season (SMU is the other), the ‘Clones are – and this is key – at plus-10 in turnovers, going 6-0 in games in which they win that battle and 0-2 in games they lost. In fact, in the Matt Campbell era, Iowa State is 0-9 when losing or tying the turnover margin and 9-2 when winning it.
Further, Campbell’s group is among the least penalized in the nation, with just 31 flags all season. That’s ranks fifth nationally and is the best mark in the Big 12. West Virginia is going to have to earn this one itself, and that means minimizing its own mistakes and being comfortable with lesser point total. It must protect the football, be willing to play field position and grind out the running game with complements from the pass.
As the adage goes, Iowa State doesn’t have enough talent to win on talent alone. But they have more than enough when its opponent gifts it multiple opportunities. Snuff those out, and West Virginia has a chance at a top 15 victory.