The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Baylor Bears
This might be the week when then name of this column is most appropriate, because it was a “back to the drawing board” week for WVU after its loss to Iowa State.
That shouldn’t be construed to mean that the Mountaineers, either players or coaches, are throwing everything out and starting over. That would be a panic move, and one that head coach Dana Holgorsen was quick to point was not on the menu. However, West Virginia will have to figure out how to attack a defensive scheme that was employed by both the Cyclones and Kansas State, and which has been employed against a number of teams that rely heavily on downfield passing.
What West Virginia, and other passing-based teams in the Big 12, have been seeing over the past few weeks is a combination of fewer initial rushers, more drops of more defenders into coverage, and more later-developing blitzers from the second level of the defense. Many of these tactics have been used by WVU itself in recent years, with defensive coordinator Tony Gibson devising a number of different looks to try to confuse opposing passers.
There are still all-out blitzes with six and sometimes even seven initial rushers, but in a number of instances the additional rushers are linebackers and safeties. Their initial position and steps can also counteract some of the run-pass option plays currently in vogue, which put demands on the quarterback to make a read before deciding on where to go with the ball. That initial pause can make the QB think a passing zone will be covered, but the resulting handoff might be going into the teeth of a box that formerly appeared deserted.
The two-stage rush also puts pressure on the offensive line and tight end or running back who stays in to block. Those players have already made its initial commitment against, for instance, three or four rushers, and if they aren’t staying aware the later rushers may have a free path the quarterback.
As always, there are many different moving parts to this. All the blame doesn’t fall on one unit. Receivers, as noted by WVU coordinator Jake Spavital, can’t give up if they don’t immediately pop open, and must take advantage of gaps that are vacated later in the play. Protection is obviously important, and so too is the QB continuing to read the defense after the initial look
Passing routes, too, might be modified, with more crosses and paths that go across the face of the safeties coming up in the midrange, which would force defensive coaches to choose between coverage or continuing to blitz. A read by a tight end or back, initially deployed to block, but transitioning into an attack on the vacated space, might also be worth a look.
The best option, though, is to run the ball. Against just five initial defenders in the box, four-and five-yard gains should be routine. Then, if late-arriving defenders don’t cover the right gap, or the back makes a move in a one-on-one situation, bigger gains should occur.However, if WVU, or any team, can’t run the ball consistently and get first downs against an initial five- or sometimes six-man back, tthen it’s going to be hard-pressed to find offensive success.
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Getting into the lead could be an important factor in this game. WVU has won its last 19 games when leading at halftime, while Baylor head coach Matt Rhule is 30-o in as many games when leading going into the fourth quarter.
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Out of 199 rushing attempts in 2018, WVU has just seven rushes of 20 yards or more in 2018, and only two of those covered more than 26 yards.
Baylor has continued to move toward more uptempo play — a bit of a return to its recent history — under former ground-and-pound coach Rhule. One thing the second-year coach has installed, though, is more utilization of running backs in the passing game. Bear backs have 37 catches through seven games this year. with JaMycal Hasty and Trestan Ebner accounting for 275 yards between them.
That’s something that West Virginia’s defense hasn’t seen a lot of this year, so it’s sure to be a focal point in the game. WVU’s spur and bandit, as well as its outside linebackers, might all have to cover given the offensive alignment and the defensive call, and it can’t afford blown coverages. Baylor’s backs are fully capable of putting up big plays once they catch the ball.
Despite an average possession time of more than 33 minutes per game, Rhule doesn’t see throwing the ball to the backs as a factor in holding on to the ball.
“Our strength has been playing in tempo and getting ourselves going. Can we put two first downs together and eventually get a drive going? In my old life, I would have lined up and tried to run the ball every play,” Rhule said. “That’s just not really who we are, we’re a little more spread and tempo. I owe it to our players to let them go play the way we play best.”
WVU is 35-31-3 all-time on Thursday nights. That is the second most frequent day of the week for Mountaineer games, currently standing just ahead of the 66 games played on Friday.
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Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon played for two seasons at WVU in 1993 and 1994 before transferring to his hometown school of Penn State. Nixon had 58 carries as a running back in his two seasons of play as a Mountaineer, gaining 304 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
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WVU wide receiver David Sills noted that a team meeting occurred on Sunday evening after the team returned from Iowa State. Those get-togethers are often-overrated, and have attained a mythological status in terms of providing turnarounds. The important thing after a loss, or an setback, is that the team doesn’t fracture, and there is no sign of that heading into the Baylor game.