The Chalkboard: WVU – Iowa State
One match-up in the WVU – Iowa State game that hasn’t been explored much this week is the clash between the Cyclone offense and the Mountaineer defense. Neither is impressive statistically, so it doesn’t grab headlines, but it might end up being the most important face-off of the day. ISU is used to not piling up big scoring numbers, but what if it is able to move the ball against West Virginia’s injury-riddled defense and get, say 20 first-half points on the board? Its confidence could skyrocket, and the visitors might get on a roll that can’t be stopped – or at least slowed enough for WVU to match. The Cyclones have been better on offense this season in years past, averaging 32.4 points per game, which is almost a school record, but that barely puts it in the top 40 nationally.
No suppose the converse happens. The Mountaineers come out and hold ISU to three or seven first half points. The WVU offense has a little bit of success, and this time confidence and momentum are on the side of the home team. In many ways, this mental aspect of the game could overshadow the physical side – even though toughness and physicality have been the themes of the week. Give a group that hasn’t been overwhelming a taste of success, and it could snowball into something even bigger.
That said, the mental intangibles have to be on the side of the Cyclones at the moment – and firmly so. Their losses are on the other side of recent wins over Oklahoma and TCU, and they are used to overcoming limited offensive production. West Virginia, on the other hand, is about one step short of being called out. How will it respond? Iowa State can probably handle more hits that the Mountaineers on Saturday. WVU really needs some good things to happen early, and not just of the breaks variety. It needs to put together a good scoring drive or two, and get some stops early in Cyclone possessions.
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When faced with an injury and the necessity for replacement, two paths are available. The first is to put in the second-teamer at the position – a straight-up substitution. The second, and one that has grown in popularity,, is to put in the next best player available, even if that means shuffling another player to a different position.
The latter is a similar mindset to that seen in recent baseball seasons, where starting pitchers are used in relief or pitched on short rest, and yanked early for relievers that are asked to go for longer stretches. After a regular season of doing things one way, it’s totally changed for the postseason.
How does that relate to WVU? Well, the Mountaineers have used the “next best up” approach a number of times this year, most notably on the offensive line and on defense. Injuries suffered by Grant Lingafelter have caused shuffling in the former unit, and it has been even more prevalent on defense, where Dylan Tonkery, Marvin Gross, Kenny Robinson and Dravon Askew-Henry, among others, have manned multiple positions.
Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong option here – no magic bullet for success. Getting the player with the next best ability on the field seems optimal, but if they aren’t as comfortable at a different position, are they truly as effective as someone that might have a bit more athletic talent, but aren’t quite as much as home?
This isn’t a new thing, though. Cast back to 1988, when West Virginia lost free safety Darrell Whitmore to a broken leg in the last game of the undefeated regular season. For the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, the Mountaineers chose to move another player to free safety and play another backup at strong safety, rather than just sub in for Whitmore. Would the other choice have been better? We’ll never know. But I do maintain that this was a bigger injury than the one which hampered Major Harris for much of that national championship game.
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Iowa State has allowed a total of only 24 second-half points in its five Big 12 games. WVU has allowed 109. That might serve as more impetus for the Mountaneers to get off to a good start.
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The shaky performance of the WVU offensive line has been discussed a great deal, and even though the coaching staff has been at pains to point out that a lack of execution has been evident across the board, it’s also undeniable that without good line play, the offense will sputter. Unless … there’s some way to scheme around some of that?
In a pure passing offense, throwing the ball quickly can hide a few woes, assuming that coverage isn’t so good as to blanket receivers off the line. On runs, it’s tougher. No matter what type of play is run, blocks at the point of attack have to be made. Reverses, draws, jet sweeps and the like can be employed to get defenders running to the wrong place (note WVU’s fake to Tevin Bush last week, which saw no fewer than four Oklahoma State defenders chase after him), but totally new offensive plays can’t be installed and honed in a week’s time. Misdirection and obfuscation can only go so far, which leads us to the question: Can West Virginia’s offensive line improve enough to get the Mountaineers to say, 27 points in this game, and 38 or so in its final three?
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I’m sure it has everything to do with the fact that WVU lost last week, but how in the heck was David Long not a Big 12 defensive player of the week honoree?
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Both teams are very successful on fourth down. If the game turns out to be a close one, the extension of a drive or two with a fourth down conversion could prove critical. West Virginia is first in the Big 12, converting 11 of its 14 attempts for a 78.5% success rate, while the Cyclones are right behind at 8-11 ( 72.7%).
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This last is a bit of an anomaly. By most any measure, from the eyeball test to stat-based metrics, Iowa State plays good defense. However, it is yielding a third-down conversion rate of 42.5%. That has led, in turn, to a total play deficit of 557-545. However, that number hasn’t hurt Iowa State a lot, for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t tend to give up big plays, and even though opponents tend to get a first down or two on a possession, or earn an extra three snaps, the defense usually forces a mistake that leads to a punt. Second, the Cyclones don’t give away extra possessions, as they have yet to lose a fumble this year and have thrown just seven interceptions. Their plus-ten turnover margin has helped narrow that play gap.