The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Iowa State Cyclones
There’s not much to say as preamble to our look at the clips from the West Virginia – Iowa State game. The Mountaineers hung in, but effort only takes you so far. With numerous starters and contributors sidelined, WVU was worn down by the visiting Cyclones. ISU also had a couple of players out for the game, but its overall depth, built over the Matt Campbell era, was far too much to overcome.
So, it’s off to the film room to learn a bit more.
WVU did a good job of containing Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy in the pocket, allowing just a couple of significant runs, including one that was the result of an early snap, which caught everyone on both sides of the line off guard.
In this clip, you can see the Mountaineers’ base contain strategy, with the mike linebacker (in this case, Dylan Tonkery) spying Purdy to prevent him from running vertically. WVU also did a good job in containing the edges and keeping him from circling the defense. West Virginia gets a solid grade in its execution of these tactics.
However, for every reaction, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. With the mike, or another defender, in the middle of the field concentrating on the quarterback, there’s one less player to defend against this pass. This probably contributed to some of the catches made by Iowa State tight ends up the seam and in the middle of the field. Given the two choices, though, keeping Purdy contained was the logical move. As one former WVU defensive coach told me once, ‘You can’t cover everything.’
The play that knocked Austin Kendall from the game was pivotal, of course, but also shows an ISU defensive move that West Virgnia was unable to counter quickly. The Cyclones overload the right side of WVU’s protection with a corner blitz, and although every Mountaineer picks up a block, there’s still one rusher unaccounted for. Sometimes, the rushers can get jammed together, with to blockers able to slow them all in a bunch, giving the QB enough time to throw, but ISU’s spacing and timing here doesn’t allow that.
Against this, receives have to read the blitz and shorten their routes or break them off so the quarterback can get the ball out quickly, but that doesn’t happen. It’s third and two, so the potential of Iowa State crowding the line should be something that the Mountaineers have in the backs of their minds on the snap.
However, neither receiver on the side of the corner blitz looks back or adjusts, leaving Kendall to take the hit. West Virginia’s pass protection is o.k here, as it has been all season, and it’s really unfortunate that the awkward contact resulted in an injury.
This is a fun play to watch, as Tykee Smith wins the tip drill battle for his first interception and touchdown in a Mountaineer uniform. However, one of the real keys to this sequence was the two prior plays. First, Iowa State missed a relatively easy deep throw that should have been a long gain for a touchdown, and then the Cyclones dropped a pass in the flat. Had either of those routine plays been completed, it’s an entirely different situation. Just like the Kendall injury, though, there’s a lot of random action and luck, both good and bad, in play.
Smith, of course, gets credit for being around the ball and making a heads up play — in order for fortune to smile, one must be prepared to take advantage of it. If that’s not an ancient Far East proverb, it probably should be.
WVU was limited in what it could call, or in what it felt it could execute successfully, once Kendall had to leave the game. Although his running isn’t a huge part of his game, he has been a threat to pull the ball on zone reads, and his two scrambles for positive yardage early in the game were something that Iowa State wasn’t prepared for.
Jack Allison, though, can’t count that as one of his weapons. West Virginia’s zone reads became, in effect, basic handoffs, as ISU didn’t have to respect the quarterback run on most of them. That’s not to blame Allison, just to note that the Mountaineers were a bit hamstrung in what they had planned to call to combat ISU’s defense.
Head coach Neal Brown noted that linebacker Josh Chandler had his best game of the season against ISU, and this clip is just one bit of evidence. A will linebacker who has duties ranging far beyond the conventional definition of the position, Chandler ranges some 3o yards downfield from his starting position to break up this deep route.
Learning a new defense is one thing. Getting comfortable in it is another, and that’s a process that can take a least a year’s worth of snaps, if not more. Chandler has a ton of talent, so it wont be a surprise to see him continue to make more plays as he becomes more acclimated to his duties. That’s hopefully a process that will occur across the defense.
Crossing routes are a staple of Neal Brown’s offense, and the Mountaineers hit a big one here with what looks like a pick but is really another receiver trying to break contact. WVU clears the left side of the field with a back out of the backfield to attract a linebacker, then T.J. Simmons comes across from right to left behind the screen of Mike O’Laughlin.
Track O’Laughlin from the start, and you can see that the contact is initiated as much by his defender as by O’Laughlin. Of course, that’s a fine line to tread when you’re talking about Big 12 officials.
Here’s Simmons again later in the same drive, and the cross is at work again. The saem clear-out principles are in play, albeit with a second receiver on the left side rather than a back, and Simmons makes it work for a score by fending off the one Cyclone with a shot at stopping him.
Postgame, Simmons noted that Iowa State adjusted its coverage in the second half to take away this action. Part of that was due to the fact that the Cyclones didn’t have to commit both of their outside linebackers to run defense, allowing one to interrupt those routes.
Offensive coordinator Matt Moore noted that one of the keys to Iowa State’s defense, in addition to the third safety who roams the middle of the field, is they way they play their outside linebackers. Both can crash the line to give ISU the effect of a five-man front and create a more crowded box. However, as the game went on, it became apparent that they didn’t always have to play both downhill, or bring the star safety into run support. They contained WVU’s rushing attack with minimal defenders, leaving more to crowd the deep and mid-range passing routes.
Brown noted West Virginia called at least six deep passes, but there was only one which was even moderately open, and the pass on that one was thrown outside instead of inside, preventing any chance of a completion.
That left a very slim playbook of options, and with Iowa State winning the line in the run game, there simply wasn’t much to work with. Here, WVU resets three players to try to provoke a reaction from Iowa State, and it leaves just five defenders in the box. They read the handoff quickly, though and get penetration across the line, blowing it up before it can get started.