The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – N.C. State Wolfpack
WVU head coach Neal Brown has noted that his team’s tactics, formations and game plans will have to morph a good bit each week in order to put his team in the best position to win. That process was on display in the 44-27 win over N.C. State, as Brown and his coaches put in a number of passes to the perimeter, along with a handful of sweeps and ends around in order to get the Wolfpack defense moving horizontally. That also took pressure off West Virginia’s restructured offensive line early, putting the onus on blocking on receivers. That didn’t mean WVU’s 0-line had it easy, or didn’t have to block, but it did help spread out the pressure a bit.
West Virginia also ran five plays “against the flow” in the first half, with those horizontal passes and jet sweeps working back against action to the outside. With blocking executed much more efficiently, WVU put up two touchdowns on its first two drives — huge confidence builders for a team that needed early success.
WVU’s attempted double pass in the first quarter didn’t work out as planned, but it did result in a big gain, and a lot of that was due to a good decision by wide receiver Sean Ryan. After catching a lateral from quarterback Austin Kendall, Ryan looked for but didn’t find an open receiver, but he didn’t panic or heave the ball into coverage. Instead, he pulled it down, and spotting open field to his left, picked up good yardage.
The second key here? Kendall’s blocks. The QB threw not one, but two blocks on the play, helping spring Ryan for more yards. Think his teammates didn’t love that effort?
West Virginia put up a number of five-man fronts early in the game, in an attempt to clog up N.C. State’s rushing attack. With both the bandit and the will linebacker on the line of scrimmage, the Mountaineers created different looks that confused the Wolfpack. On this play, the three defensive linemen are moved down a gap each to the left, while bandit Quondarius Qualls and will linebacker Josh Chandler line up on the right side of the d-line.
There’s a total missed assignment by the State tight end here, as he runs between both to focus on a defender on the next level, leaving Qualls and Chandler a free path into the backfield. While every such alignment didn’t result in such a big play for WVU, the flexibility in where the edge and second level defenders lined up paid dividends on a number of plays.
Here’s one of the many plays which WVU used to get the Pack flowing horizontally. At first blush, it looks like State has it covered, with eight defenders in the box. However, the Mountaineers have one blocker, Sean Ryan lined up outside State’s widest edge defender, and every WVU blocker gets a hat on an opponent.
Tight end blocks are critical in this tight formation, as Jovani Haskins gets a down block on a linebacker and Mike O’Laughlin doesn’t give up on the play, even though he doesn’t have an initial target. He keeps running and seals the inside to spring Sam James for a huge gain. Add in Kennedy McKoy, who drives his opponent clear out of bounds with his block out of the backfield, and it’s easy to see why the coaching staff was happy with the perimeter and skill position blocking on the day. You just can’t do it much better than this.
Moving on to the second quarter, WVU has established a nice base with its sweeps, screens and outside runs. Now it fakes the sweep, then counters with an inside handoff to Kennedy McKoy, who gets a nice gap for a six-yard gain. This may not be a huge gainer, but it’s a nice confidence builder for the offense, which can now say ‘See? We can run it between the tackles.’ You can guarantee that helped West Virginia in the fourth quarter, when it ran the ball inside successfully to milk the clock and produce a final clinching touchdown.
Now run this again, and watch the second level of N.C. State’s defense. Against Missouri, those defenders were flying up into gaps and stuffing things early. Now that they have to be wary of the sweep action, they are much less agressive. There’s a couple of hops and a couple of false steps, but the defenders are still 4-5 yards away from the ball when McKoy hits the line of scrimmage.
Also as usual for Brown, this play sets up another action for the future. Run the sweep action, fake the handoff, and Kendall could be free for a keeper, or, even better, a quick pass to the tight end (in this case Haskins) who is open in the flat.
WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning noted that his unit played 18 extra snaps due to penalties that gave N.C. State extra chances or outright first downs on offense. That the Mountaineers were able to weather that number is a credit to their resilience, but that’s not going to cut it against better competition. The Pack ran 86 plays as opposed to West Virginia’s 68, and got three first downs via penalty. That’s simply not sustainable relative to getting wins. Give any Big 12 team that many snaps, and they’re likely to score far more than 27 points.
Why do we love this? Not because it’s a touchdown — o.k., that’s great — but because it is the second of a back-to-back sequence in which WVU ran the same play twice. The first time, Kennedy McKoy gets good blocking and a good gain, but gets twisted up just a bit and is brought down short of the goal line. Without question, McKoy thought he should have scored, so why not run it again? WVU gets up to the line, gets in the same formation, and gets the same look from the defense. This time McKoy walks into the end zone, as the Mountaineers again have the Pack pinned with as many blockers as defenders on the edge.
There’s another bit of great window dressing here, too. Watch Logan Thimons, who moves across the backfield to the right and blocks on that side, creating a false read on him as a lead blocker. WVU’s wide receivers again stone their opponents, leading to McKoy’s stroll to paydirt.
WVU got called out by the analyst on the broadcast for this play, who noted that the Mountaineers didn’t have anyone covering the back coming out of the backfield on this screen pass. While there might not have been a man assignment on the play, there certainly was a defender, as lineman Darius Stills drops out of the rush in a WVU implementation of a zone blitz. Stills becomes, in effect, the mike backer, with responsibility for a draw or short pass in the middle of the field, or if the QB escapes the blitz.
Watch as Stills bounces out, reads the screen, beats the blocker who was in front of him, splits two more linemen and jams up the potential lane. Tht’s a heck of a play. JoVanni Stewart then comes off his pass coverage assignment to clean up on the runner. Remember Neal Brown discussing winning one-on-one battles? Here’s two victories for the Mountaineers on one play.
Quarterback accuracy — and inaccuracy — had a big impact on the game. Counting only those passes that should be relatively easy to complete — screens, short routes and the like — Austin Kendall missed five in the game. Four of those were overthrows, which can often result in interceptions. Oddly, the four came on a pair of back-to-back plays.
N.C. State, though, fared worse, with Matthew McKay misfiring on seven attempts at short range and where the receiver was open. That, again, is something that can’t be counted on from opponents down the road.
West Virginia’s defensive front has been credited with just three pass breakups this year, which seems somewhat low. If memory serves, the d-line batted down that many in the James Madison game alone. We’ll leave the stats reconciliation alone for now, while noting that WVU has been doing a much better job of getting hands up in the passing lane. Defensive lineman Reese Donahue noted that the addition of a fourth rusher on most pass plays helps, as that’s an extra pair of hands to cover a throwing lane, but it just feels like WVU is doing a much better job this year of getting hands up when they can’t get to the QB.
Here, watch Jeffery Pooler demonstrate the tactic perfectly. N.C. State is throwing the ball quickly, so there’s no chance to get home, but Pooler gets a hand up and deflects the fourth down pass.