The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Iowa State Cyclones
Losses, of course, bring out much more commentary, not to mention angst, from the fan base, and it was no different in the days after West Virginia’s 30-14 loss at Iowa State. Some of the ideas and opinions expressed were good, and backed up by what actually occurred in the game, while many others were not. With an eye toward that, we examined and quantified one aspect of the Iowa State defense in an attempt to show what made it so successful.
There was a commonly expressed opinion that the Cyclones’ delayed blitzes were a key to confusing WVU’s offense. However, an examination of each snap showed that while many blitzes came from the second or even the third level of the ISU defense, very few of them were delayed. They may have taken a second or two longer to get home, but the blitzers were, in most instances, moving forward at the snap at a full out pace.
(As a side note, countering the chorus of those who rip the three-man rush and defensive front as a flawed scheme, ISU rushed only three defenders on 10 plays. One of those yielded a safety.)
In addition to the three-man rush, ISU rushed four defenders on 12 snaps. Only four of those could have been considered delayed blitzes, where one rusher clearly hesitated or wasn’t going all-out toward the backfield as the ball was snapped. Those rushes produced two sacks.
The five-man rush was the most prevalent, being employed 15 times. All but one of those were five men in the rush from the get-go. Again, a number of the additional rushers came from linebacker or safety spots. They produced five sacks. Finally, ISU rushed six defenders six times. These produced some pressures, but no sacks. ISU also rushed just two defenders on one occasion, a play on which WVU failed to complete a pass.
(A couple of notes here. First, the total number of rushes is greater than WVU’s official number of 42 offensive plays, because I included those that officially didn’t occur due to penalties. However, they were part of ISU’s defensive approach, which is why they were included. Second, some judgments had to be made on running plays. Was that linebacker really blitzing, or did he not react until after the hand-off occurred? Granted, there were some fine lines there, but for the most part these numbers reflect the Cyclones’ approach.)
What does this tell us? First, the Cyclones did a good job of overloading certain areas and getting rushers free. They did an even beater job of getting off blocks and producing pressure – WVU simply didn’t sustain blocks well. Finally, WVU wasn’t able to run against light defensive boxes of four or five defenders consistently – or anything approaching it.
This early play typified WVU’s struggles to put together good blocking and a good read of the pass defense. Wide receiver David Sills, in the slot at the top, is open on a slant, and an on-time pass would have resulted in a solid gain. Instead, it’s a negative play, one of the first of many, as quarterback Will Grier either doesn’t see Sills or skips the opportunity to get him the ball. Instead, it’s a sack, and the Cyclone defense gets a boost.
WVU spur Dravon Askew-Henry plays a perfect robber technique in this pass coverage. He drops off the slot receiver who he appeared to be locked onto with man coverage, passing him off to a deeper defender behind him and undercuts the out route. The timing of this is excellent, as it’s executed just as Iowa State QB Brock Purdy is readying his throw.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen noted that his players fell for pump fakes several times, and said that was something that defenders are taught to deal with in junior high. Probably so, but a well-executed fake is something of a lost art, and thus one that players don’t tend to see much of any more. Iowa State QB Brock Purdy has made it part of his repertoire, complementing his excellent ball-handling skills on RPOs and zone reads. It’s easy to say “stay on your feet” but in the heat of battle, it can be tough.
The wind was a tricky thing on punts and kickoffs. While the wind was negligible at field level, it was blowing flags straight out on the upper tier of the stadium. Punts and kicks that got up high appear to have been affected, and WVU struggled with that all evening. Marcus Simms, who had been improving on catching the ball while moving forward or at least stationary, appeared to misjudge at least two.
As good as West Virginia was in execution on its interception, it was just as bad here. The Mountaineers appear to be set to switch assignment if the receivers in front of them cross, but major hesitation leads to confusion and a wide open ISU receiver in the end zone. There was also a good bit of scrambling just prior to the snap, which might indicate all 11 defenders weren’t in the same coverage. This TD was gift-wrapped by poor coverage, and may have been the impetus for more hesitancy and less aggressiveness in later defensive possessions.
Contrary to claims that West Virginia didn’t run any screens to try to slow the ISU rush, the following screen proves the opposite. In fact, it was one of seven screens or quick swing passes that the Mountaineers tried. One out of every six plays, WVU went with this counter to the pass rush, and while it hit a few times, it wasn’t enough to sustain drives.
WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson expressed frustration that offensive pass interference wasn’t called on Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar on this play. He did get away with a push on Dravon Askew-Henry that freed him, but the fact that WVU couldn’t get another defender close to him after the catch on a third-and-16 situation was also frustrating. To be fair, West Virginia’s receivers are pretty good at delivering nudges of their own, too.
We’ll try to end on a bright note. West Virginia defensive linemen Kenny Bigelow and Reese Donahue executed perfectly in jumping through and over the Iowa State line on this field goal attempt. Bigelow wound up getting the block, which was returned for WVU’s final score of the game. Their technique was not in violation of the leaping rule, which states: “It is not a foul if the player was aligned in a stationary position within one yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped.”
We might give the duo an assist on ISU’s subsequent missed field goal, as they applied pressure in the same manner. The ensuing kick was wide right and short.
Finally, the ugliness of WVU’s offensive game drowned out some good play by the defense, especially that of Shea Campbell, who moved over to mike linebacker to replace the injured Dylan Tonkery, who was out with a reported groin injury. Campbell wasn’t perfect, but he was stout against the run, and helped plug yet another gap in an injury-ravaged Mountaineer defense.