The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kansas State Wildcats
West Virginia’s 35-6 win over Kansas State might not last a long time in the memory banks, but it was certainly notable as the easiest win the Mountaineers have had over the Wildcats in Big 12 Conference play. Even though it might not have been a signature win, there was still much to see and learn from our trip to the film room.
The first of Will Grier’s two interceptions was characterized as a “miscommunication” between he and receiver Marcus Simms. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s also a bit of a cover, to avoid any finger-pointing. Simms might well have been expected to take an outside release, but once he sees no safety in the center of the field, he broke to the inside. Grier may have been expecting Simms to break back outside, but for most of the route Simms has clear inside leverage. Grier does have to make sure he’s not throwing up a floater for a hanging free safety to pick, but there was no one in the middle of the field save the back judge, and all he was concerned about in this game was breaking up WVU touchdown celebrations.
As Grier noted, such miscommunications are part of the game. Simms took advantage of something he saw, and Grier was throwing the ball to the safer location. Those two decisions came at almost the same time, thus producing an interception instead of a touchdown.
Watch the design of this blitz. West Virginia’s tactics go far beyond “go get the ball”. Blitz schemes are designed to provoke a reaction which can then be taken advantage of, and this one is a great example. Out of the standard 3-3 set, linebacker David Long creeps up to the line, drawing the attention of K-State’s right tackle. Obviously concerned with his speed, that keeps his focus inside. Meanwhile, Toyous Avery perfectly times the snap and comes steaming around the end. That puts the tackle in conflict, and there’s the slightest hesitation before he turns his attention back to Long, but by then it’s too late for him to stop either one. Avery shuts down any possible bounce outside of the running play, and Long administers the coup de grace by beating the block and spilling the runner.
It this isn’t targeting, nothing is. WVU tight end Jovani Haskins takes a helmet-to-helmet shot, but the officials don’t even blink, and the review booth was apparently out getting a hot dog. Leads with the head. Hit with the crown of the helmet. Forcible contact to the head or neck area. This one checks all the boxes, and it was likely the hit that forced Haskins to leave the game. West Virginia assistant coach Joe Wickline protested the non-call vehemently, but even that didn’t spark a review.
Haskins, by the way, is still being evaluated to see if he can play this week.
Anticipated personnel and schematic tactics that were expected against the Wildcats did not materialize. A four-man defensive line, seen briefly against Tennessee in the opener, was in the game plan, but never called for.
“We didn’t need it,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson (we think) said after the game.
(Interlude: We say “We think” because ESPN, despite all of its privileged access, and what one announcer claimed as a half-hour sit down with Gibson, repeatedly misidentified him as staffer Tommy Morrone on their broadcast. Have we been talking to the wrong guy all these years?)
Back to the game. Despite concerns about his size, JoVanni Stewart took almost all of the snaps at sam linebacker while the game was still in question. He showed that his quickness, aggressiveness and fearlessness are at least even, if not superior, matchups for big linemen. It’s pretty clear that he is going to be the starter unless another unforeseen circumstance arises.
WVU’s defense is getting much better at not only disguising its call, but also jumping in and out of them based on the offense’s reaction to the initial set. There’s no game action here, but it’s instructive nonetheless.
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson looks at the defensive alignment, and detects what he thinks is a one- or two-linebacker blitz. He checks into another play, but doesn’t get it off quickly enough. Gibson comes bounding up the sideline with the “call it off” signal, and WVU quickly responds with great communication across the board. The K-State sideline realizes that they are now in a play that has a low chance of success, and burns a timeout on third and 11.
This might seem simple. Defenses check in and out of calls a good bit. But making sure everyone gets the call, and then executes, is a tougher matter, and West Virginia is improving upon it all the time. Forcing a team to fry timeouts to repair the situation is an added bonus, and that’s something WVU forced K-State to do repeatedly.
Here’s WVU’s 82-yard Grier to Simms touchdown. The communication is spot on here, of course, but one additional takeaway is how it was set up. On the previous play, out of an almost identical trips-right, one-back set, Grier threw an out route to Simms to get the Mountaineers out of the shadow of their own goal line. On this play, Simms makes a double move, faking the out route and then getting deep. There’s not a better exhibition of one play setting up the next.
The call for a move to the four-man defense front by a vocal percentage of the Mountaineer fan base is rooted in the belief that it will help the pass rush. In this game, though, the Mountaineers did fine with their 3-3 set. Kansas State dropped back to throw 36 times, and WVU got significant pressure on 15 on those. Keep in mind that this also included a number of throws in the fourth quarter where West Virginia’s only concern was to keep everything in front of it and not allow any deep balls. It also includes designed quick passes where no rush in the nation would reach the pocket.
The pivotal play of the game, West Virginia’s stop on fourth and one in second quarter, has a number of different elements involved. First, K-State actually had a second and one situation two plays prior, but WVU stuffed a run and a QB sneak on the next two plays to set this up. How many times does that happen out in the middle of the field?
Next, watch the pre-snap action. West Virginia’s linebackers and safeties are not only jumping in and out of the line, but they are also communicating with each other and with the defensive linemen, with at least a couple, including Dylan Tonkery, having diagnosed an option.
As the ball is snapped, JoVanni Simmons plays the pitch perfectly, forcing an early toss to running back Alex Barnes, who started the play seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Dylan Tonkery beats a block to assist Simmons, and KEnny Robinson, flying up from his free safety spot, finishes it off with a big hit.
K-State helped here too. Run a wide, slow developing play with the back seven yards off the line, and needing just a few inches for a first down? That’s just not an optimal call, and not the Bill Snyder we know.
Center and right guard continue to be spots on the offensive line still open for competition. While they are not, as the errorful ESPN described, trouble spots for WVU, they aren’t nailed down as the tackles and left guard are. Matt Jones and Chase Behrndt are getting the starting nods, but Jacob Buccigrossi and Joe Brown are still getting plenty of playing time. Brown came out late in the game with an ice pack on his neck, so his status will also be a checkpoint on Saturday’s visit to Lubbock.
Running back Alec Sinkfield had his ankle taped, but did not have a boot on or use crutches during the game on Saturday.
We’ll close this session with another well-designed play, and just like the Simms TD it was set up by earlier action. West Virginia has run various forms of screens and quick slants out of its trips to one side formation. It had done so earlier in this game to Tevin Bush, who delayed at the line for a split second to take a pass for a seven-yard gain.
This time, Bush, in the middle of the trips formation, makes the slightest of hops at the start of his route. It’s not much, but that’s the kind of thing defensive backs are looking for as potential tips to plays. The defensive back resets his feet, and that’s all Bush needs to get a clean outside release and a couple of steps’ advantage.