The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Texas Tech Red Raiders
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Earlier in his career, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen prized first downs as a metric of offensive success. With a fast-paced offense, piling up new sets of downs was important, as that meant the offense was staying on the field, getting more snaps, and potentially wearing out the defense. It also meant another set of chances to score, which is obviously the point of the whole exercise.
Recently, though, Holgorsen has been highlighting another measurement: yards per play, and the differential between what his team earns and that of the opponent. While every metric has its pluses and minuses, Holgorsen believes that this one provides an accurate picture of how the offense and defense is performing outside of points on the board, which remains the ultimate arbiter.
“I don’t want to get too into it because I think our way of looking at it and what we’re looking at makes a whole lot of sense that me and my staff is privy to and you’re not,” he said, loath to reveal too much and have another program steal his way of thinking. “The higher that number is, the higher your percentage is that you’re going to win. (Current Washington State head coach Mike) Leach used to talk about it, and the first thing we’d look at was yards per play. He would obsess over it. So, I had to listen and pay attention, and over the course of the years, I’ve understood it. That margin is a direct result of winning and losing.”
So, what does this week look like? So far, WVU has had 200 snaps and gained 1,636 yards, an average of 8.2 per play. Texas Tech, playing one more game and running its offense at a much faster pace, has 373 plays for 2,494 yards, an average of 6.7. If the Mountaineers could hold that advantage, that might be enough to equal a win. Although he again didn’t get into details, a differential of two yards per play is a significant marker in Holgorsen’s evaluation of success in this area.
Still, he’s not going to get so caught up in getting 32 first downs or eight yards per play that he loses sight of the bigger picture.
“If it takes two plays like our first touchdown did last game – we went 90-some yards in two plays – that’s fine with me. But if we go on a 16-play drive and be efficient and do a great job on third down and run the clock and win time of possession, then I’ll be just OK with that as well.”
* * * * * *
Texas Tech has yielded just four sacks in four games this year, while WVU has recorded seven. Those numbers have been discussed in several venues, but they are just the first step in looking at pressure, and certainly don’t tell the whole story.
For sure, sacks are important. They are negative yardage plays, reverse momentum, and are often drive killers. Coaches want as many of them as possible. But almost as important is pressure that gets quarterbacks off their spot. When rushers are able to force passers to move, it often disrupts the timing and rhythm of the play. The QB can’t set his feet and throw in a comfortable pocket. He’ll often have to reset and chuck it on the move. Receivers will have to continue their routes and find a different opening in the defense than the pattern originally was set for.
None of these items are guarantees of defensive success, but there’s a big difference between running a play as called or getting it off with the initial read, as opposed to having to reset on the fly with the QB on the run. That’s the difference between solid QBs and great ones. WVU fans know that Will Grier can throw on the run, and that he can shrug off pressure to make plays downfield. Can Tech’s Alan Bowman? That may be the case, but he’s going to have to prove it on Saturday if West Virginia’s defense can remove him from his comfort zone.
* * * * * *
The status of several Texas Tech injured players could be a major factor in the game. The Red Raiders got safety Jah’Shawn Johnson back for the Oklahoma State game, and his presence was significant, as they held the normally high-powered Cowboy offense to 17 points. Tech also got back a pair of offensive linemen, Travis Bruffy and Madison Akamnonu, after both had missed the major part of the previous week’s game. That tends toward a different evaluation of the team the Red Raiders put on the field last week than the one that suited up in previous contests and was lit up defensively.
With those returns, though, come some potential losses. Wide receiver T.J. Vasher, who lit up WVU with touchdown catches of 53 and 60 yards a year ago, suffered a knee injury against the Cowboys. His status is still up in the air for Saturday. Vasher has 16 catches for 273 yards and touchdowns scores this year.
If Vasher can’t go, that could lead to some shuffling in the Tech wide receiver corps, but one player that head coach Kliff Kingsbury likely won’t have to work with is freshman Myller Royals, who was arrested last week on charges of driving with an invalid license and possession of brass knuckles. Two other freshmen are behind Vasher on the depth chart, so moves from different positions in the receiver room seem the most likely approach should Vasher be unavailable.
* * * * * *
Texas Tech running backs sport some unique first names, including Da’Leon, Ta’Zhawn and SaRodorick. That has to be fun and entertaining times for Red Raider play-by-play men and analysts.
* * * * * *
Travel Note of the Week: Getting to most of the road venues for football games in the Big 12 isn’t a killer, although non-direct flights do add some time to the travel day. TCU, Austin and Baylor are reachable via a flight to Dallas, which has two airports, and either another short hop flight or a reasonable drive to the respective campuses. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State? Fly into Oklahoma City, hop in the car, no big deal. Same for Iowa State and Des Moines, and Kansas and Kansas State with Kansas City serving as the hub.
Lubbock is the outlier, in more ways than one. Flights into that city just don’t match up well with our Blue & Gold News printing schedule, not to mention the prices, which are horrendous. So, we often make the ugly choice of a flight into Dallas\Fort Worth, then a drive of some 4.5 hours across the Texas hardpan.
Along the way we see Sweetwater, home of the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup, windmills … and not much else. The only thing that makes it even remotely tolerable is that once you get out of the Dallas Metroplex, speed limits are a suggestion only.
* * * * * *
We’re always looking for something new to check out in our few free minutes on road trips, so maybe we can do some investigations on the Lubbock Lights. This is one of the most famous of UFO incidents, and there’s gotta be some evidence left behind somewhere, right?
* * * * * *
Since 2000, Texas Tech has thrown for 88,580 yards. They lead second-place Hawaii by 12,064 yards. To put it in more relatable terms, Tech has advanced the ball a total of 50.3 miles over the last 18-plus years, and leads the second-place Rainbow Warriors by 6.8 miles. That’s called lapping the field.
* * * * * *
The anticipation for this game centers around an aerial shootout, but the run games for both teams must also be taken into account. Tech is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, and has punched the ball in from short range several times after getting set up in the red zone, as they have racked up 16 rushing scores on the season.
WVU hasn’t had that level of success in hitting the end zone on the ground, but the Mountaineers are averaging 5.1 yards per rush.
One key for the Mountaineers in this game? Making defenders miss. They have been o.k. in that regard, but the Red Raiders were very good last week in getting ballcarriers on the ground at the first opportunity.
Below, Kennedy McKoy discusses the emphasis that running backs coach Marquel Blackwell has put on maintaining proper pad level and providing a smaller target area to help promote avoiding tackles.