The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Oklahoma State Cowboys
Without question, this trip down the concrete stairs to our cinder-block room next to the boiler is a tough one. But with some old-school grit, we’re tackling this trip to the Film Room.
It might seem a bit odd to start off a game featuring 86 points with a non-scoring kickoff return, but big plays in this phase of the game have been reduced drastically this year with the new fair catch rule and the bonus of a spot at the 25-yard line for that call. So, this one stood it.
West Virginia gets decent placement with the kick, putting it just inside the right hashmark and down to the four-yard line. That helps the coverage team cut the field down, with the defenders swinging like a gate toward the hash and the sideline in order to pin the returner to one side of the field. Unfortunately, WVU overswings a bit. Only three defenders are to the left of OSU’s Chuba Hubbard as he heads up the field, and just one decent block is needed to spring him into the open field. Kudos to WVU kicker Evan Staley, who cut down the angle and managed to stay with Hubbard enough to knock him out of bounds.
Why is this important? WVU faces the best return game in the league this week. Get out of line like this against the Sooners, and it’s going to be a 96-yard return, not a 36-yarder.
Here comes a triptych of Will Grier runs. Did the limited success on this first one, which gained two yards only after a nifty move by Grier, lead to the call on third and one in the third quarter, which we’ll look at in a moment? Head coach Dana Holgorsen characterized that latter call as “not us”.
OSU covers this play pretty well. It adjust to the motion with a safety flying up, the end crashes down on the handoff, and the backers are flowing to the right as soon as the play gets underway. There’s just not much here to justify a similar action later in the game, even if it is from a different formation.
This QB sneak just doesn’t add up. While the black and yellow lines make it look as if it’s a yard or less, it seemed like more, at least from my vantage point on the field. The big key, though, is that Oklahoma State has a defender in both A gaps, between West Virginia’s center and guards. If one of those gaps is open, or someone is head up on the linemen, that’s an opening that can usually be exploited via the sneak. In this case, it’s not there.
With that advantage closed, West Virginia’s offensive line is forced to wedge out space for Grier to move the ball at least a yard and a half from his position under center. WVU’s line has improved in several areas over the course of the last month, but straight ahead power blocking isn’t one of them. The expectation that they should do so wasn’t the best use of the Mountaineers’ resources.
Finally, although OSU isn’t in a classic goal line defense, with six or seven big bodies on the line, it did have eight players within a couple of yards of the ball, including the motion defender. One of the others, the right defensive end, crashes down before Trevon Wesco, lined up in the backfield, had the chance to get to him. Wesco would have been better positioned as a classic tight end on the line, where he could have sealed off that edge. Instead, he’s reduced to futilely trying to push Grier through a pile of about a ton of Cowboy defenders.
Holgorsen often says he isn’t concerned with turnovers so much as he is with points scored off them. With the Mountaineers holding a 4-1 edge in the former, they should have had a healthy advantage in the latter. Instead, the margin was just 13-3 in favor of WVU, as OSU killed off one entirely and held the Mountaineers to field goals on two others. If West Virginia changes one of those field goals to a TD, it would have only needed a field goal, rather than a touchdown, on its final possession of the game.
Which leads us to . . . the fumble.
We can debate all day whether Grier lost control of the ball before he touched down, or whether or not there was enough evidence to overturn the original call. The important thing here, though, is the play call itself. Although it looked like a zone read, WVU players and coaches said afterward that it was a straight QB run, and that it didn’t work because OSU defended it differently than it had in past games.
That’s reasonable. But again, in that situation, is a designed QB run the best call? Did the fact that West Virginia had previously failed with the sneak turn it away from handing the ball off to Leddie Brown or Martell Pettaway?
Whatever the rationale, the Cowboys again had it covered from the get-go. the safety that was positioned at the four-yard line at the snap is flying downhill immediately, and Grier never has a chance.
This last is a classic second-guess, but if WVU had a pass called here, whoever got the inside route call to the middle of the field would have collected a pretty easy score, at there was more open prairie in the middle of the field than the westward migrants of the 1850s ever thought about crossing.
Now, about the tactics of the Oklahoma State defensive backs. They hugged and mugged Mountaineer receivers without mercy, and it took too long for WVU to fight back. David Sills finally shoved off mightily to get space for a fourth quarter reception, but by then it was too late.
This wasn’t a one-way street. The officials just didn’t call much of anything either way. There were zero holding calls in a game where 94 passes were thrown, and West Virginia got away with a couple of defensive pass interference plays of its own.
The takeaway here? WVU didn’t adjust to the (horrendous) way the game was being called.
If there was one play that epitomized West Virginia’s defensive frustration, it was this one. Coordinator Tony Gibson said his team played a different defense from the one that he wanted, but it wasn’t 100% clear where the breakdown occurred. Was the wrong thing signaled in, or was it misinterpreted by the defense? Or was a call made and then corrected, but not relayed?
Whatever the cause, the defense wasn’t aware of it, as none knew, or admitted, that there was supposed to be another coverage called. It sure looked like it here, as OSU rather easily converts a third-and-20 situation in the fourth quarter that leads to a touchdown. Change this to a punt, and the Mountaineers probably go home with a win.
WVU’s DBs make multiple mistakes here. Josh Norwood breaks forward after initially dropping deep. He doesn’t need to do that, as forcing the throw short, then rallying to tackle, is the idea here. Hakeem Bailey breaks off coverage on the sideline receiver, putting Dravon Askew-Henry in a quandry, with two receivers to cover, and both beyond the first down marker. Without knowing what was called, it’s difficult to single out a culprit, but two of WVU’s three defensive backs on that side of the field are well inside the line to gain, and still moving forward, when the pass was thrown.
We all understand injuries are part of the game. But WVU was again down to its fourth string middle linebacker in the second half after Shea Campbell, who twice was felled by stingers, finally had to come out of the game in the middle of the third quarter. No disrespect to anyone involved, but no team, not even Alabama, is going to be unaffected by such deep dives into the depth chart.
What else led to OSU’s offensive explosion in the second half? One reason is on display here. First, the Cowboys lined up in a four wide receiver set 45 times in the second half. Only six times did they have three or fewer, and all of those were in special situations, either short yardage for a first down or in the red zone. That had the effect of spreading the West Virginia defense, which was unable to contain the running lanes that resulted.
When the Cowboys put three wideouts to one side, it almost always did to to the boundary side, which had the additional effect of putting David Long out into an initial coverage spot, which negated his ability to cover the field and track down plays to the opposite side. These FSL formations were designed, as one coach put it, to render the best player on the defense useless, as they knew they couldn’t block him.
OSU is in the FSL here, and David Long is walked out in coverage. As the play develops, all three backers wind up in coverage, two with their backs to quarterback Taylor Cornelius, who strolls for an easy 17-yard gain.
We’ll end with a positive note, because we need it, ans suspect you do too. William Crest was back on kickoff returns alongside Tevin Bush. Although he didn’t get a return chance, it was good to see him at least get on the field. Crest was never able to forge a primary role for himself in that regard, but he was a great teammate and positive force in the locker room.