Inside The Chess Match Between OSU’s Offense & WVU’s Defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If there’s a centralized theme to what West Virginia wants to do against Oklahoma State’s offense, it’s eliminate the big play.
Cowboys’ quarterback Mason Rudolph, he of a national-best 2,650 yards and 30 school records, will strike quickly via vertical throws down the seam and sideline. The senior is 28-7 as a starter and is the FBS active career leader in yards per play at 8.16. That means every snap with Rudolph under or behind center, OSU has approached averaging a first down.
To the point of the WVU defense: With such a prolific quarterback, in such a high-powered offense with the ability to hand it to the Big 12’s leader in rushing and throw it to the conference king in receiving yards, how do the Mountaineers at least limit the yardage to reasonable per-play quantity so has not to proverbially get run off the field?
The answer is all of the most basic approaches and one more. First, West Virginia must hold the point of attack reasonably, tackle effectively and line up correctly and without a handful of missed assignments. With an offense this varied and potent, sound structure and fundamentals come to the forefront. Think Kansas State. The Wildcats do nothing spectacularly except execute the basics, and it makes them formidable down after down, series after series, game after game, season after season.
If Tony Gibson’s defense can do that, and rotate just enough players to keep from wearing down in the fourth quarter, it has a chance. That chance increases the more uncomfortable Rudolph becomes. How to make a QB uneasy? Pressure and confusion. While West Virginia has struggled at times with the former – WVU is 77th nationally in sacks with 13 but does have added hurries and knockdowns – the later comes naturally to the odd stack.
“He doesn’t have many weaknesses,” safeties coach Matt Caponi said of Rudolph. “We have to do a good job of trying to confuse him. Give him some different looks and try to keep him off guard.”
The idea is to make the confusion post-snap rather than pre-snap. Why? Less time for adjustments. Like Will Grier and Washington State’s Luke Falk, among others, Rudolph has complete control of the offense. He doesn’t look to the sidelines for every call, but rather audibles himself. That sets a faster pace, and doesn’t allow a defense to adjust, then re-adjust as the play is being changed.
The counter to that is for Gibson to play poker without a tell. Keep the alignments basic so almost all Rudolph’s reads have to come post-snap. Sure, the Cowboys can send a player in motion to reveal man or zone. But that’s about it for certain base looks. If the call isn’t tipped off until after the snap, Rudolph literally has seconds to make a read and deliver the ball. There’s no way to decipher if the overload is coming to the right or left, if the Mountaineers are bringing six or four or dropping eight.
“Our job on the back end is to try to confuse the quarterbacks and to try and give them different looks and be in different things,” Caponi said of his safeties, which will loom large Saturday. “We’ll try to continue to build on that and just do what we do and see if we can hold up.”
Sure, there are some sets in which Rudolph is going to understand where his advantages are. Press coverage, for example, with a single safety. That often calls for a vertical shot to one-on-one coverage. As Gibson said, WVU will have to win its share of those to stay in the game. But if the Mountaineers can muddle the look, and not show run fits and pressures until late, it gives itself a greater opportunity.
It’s much like what Texas did, though in a far different defense. The Longhorns, which held OSU to just 13 points in an overtime game, often played four DBs flat on the back end, and kept the rush simplified with three down linemen and a rush end. The linebackers were free to roam and make plays, and UT didn’t tip what it was doing until after the snap. That worked for Texas, because it has a high-caliber defensive front which helped bottle the run even when the Pokes ran into a light box. It was also, because of that, able to help protect over the top with a two deep look.
The pair of safeties negated some of the throws down the seam, and could better help deep down the sidelines with the field cut in half. It left the linebackers more exposed, but better to give up smaller gains than major chunks. Force Oklahoma State to execute 10-plus play drives, thinking sometime there will be a drop, a mistake, a negative yardage play that puts them behind the chains. Then capitalize.
The ideas will work for West Virginia as well, but they won’t materialize rushing only four most of the game. Gibson will have to mix it up and roll the dice at points, and the corners are going to have to play their best game of the season. Proper fits are a premium, as is slowing the run game, which is always the first check mark on the board.
“If we can stop the run and control the pass, then that gives us the best chance to win,” Caponi said. “We have to try to get them off the field. If they’re running the ball, they’re controlling the clock and eating up some time. They’re going to make plays. It’s them, it’s their offense, the No. 1 offense in the nation, and they’re going to make plays. You want to go in and stop the run and control the pass, and that allows us to do some more things in coverage.
“We also have to buckle down in the red zone and hold them. What we’ve been doing all year is trying to force teams to kick field goals and try to win with points-per-possession. Inside the 40-yard line, our offense score touchdowns and our defense hold teams to field goals.”
Which all gets easier sans fatigue. That struck against Baylor, and anything similar is lethal versus OSU. Look for WVU to attempt to use much the same defensive line rotation, stealing a handful of snaps with Ezekiel Rose, Jalen Harvey and Darius Stills if possible, while getting corner Kenny Robinson back into action if healthy. Add up the above, and the Mountaineers have a puncher’s chance with their offense to win.
Note: Caponi also detailed the recent issues on third and longs, which could also be problematic with Oklahoma State’s 49.5 percent conversion rate, the ninth-best nationally. West Virginia ranks 28th in third down defense, allowing 31.8 percent.
“It’s a lot of missed assignments, little things that you don’t see on field much in the game until you come back and watch the replay and and correct it,” Caponi said. “Guys maybe locking too long in zone coverage on receivers when they should be getting their eyes back to the quarterback. Just doing a little bit better of a job understanding the situation and when we’re playing man coverage, knowing where the sticks are, knowing when we can be aggressive, and when we shouldn’t be. It’s all things that we can clean up and we have made corrections. Hopefully, we’ll be better at it this week.”