The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Texas Longhorns
As Neal Brown said immediately following West Virginia’s loss to Texas, a review of the game film was likely to make coaches and players sick. However, that bad feeling wasn’t like the review of the Missouri game, where there were few positives and not much to build upon. Instead, it was likely caused by a realization of how close WVU could have come to making this a last-possession game, and how many of the mistakes made were ones that could have been avoided.
To be sure, Texas had more overall talent on the field, but you can only play 11 at a time, and in many instances West Virginia either had players in position to make plays, or made a simple mental or execution errors that caused things to go awry. While that makes for a tough watch, it’s much better than reviewing a game that you had no chance to win.
So, it’s down the concrete steps – watch your head on that iron support beam – and pull up a chair in the corner next to the boiler room to review some plays from last Saturday.
WVU started off the game with nine consecutive passes, many designed to substitute for running plays that the Mountaineers could not execute against the massive Texas defensive front. (Hey, there’s that 3-man line that supposedly doesn’t work again!) WVU did pretty well on those plays, but one that failed offers some instructive points. Austin Kendall throws an on-target ball to Sam James, and he has four blockers in front, including three linemen, against three defenders in proximity and a fourth closing in. However, none of the linemen get a block before James is cut down by a linebacker.
Center Briason Mays noted that there are basic rules that cover which defender the downfield linemen are supposed to look at for blocks, but that there’s also a certain amount of “just hit someone” involved. Neither happened on this play. Whether this was a lack of communication or recognition, these are the types of errors that West Virginia has to avoid if it is to have any hope of mounting a consistent offensive attack.
We’re going to look at all four 0of West Virginia’s interceptions on the day. Head coach Neal Brown stuck with his assessment of only one being fully the fault of quarterback Austin Kendall, while quarterbacks coach Sean Reagan set the number at two. There’s often more than just a bad pass or a bad read in play when picks occur.
On the first interception, Kendall didn’t read the linebacker dropping into coverage, but as offensive coordinator Matt Moore noted, an initial mis-alignment by Texas ended up helping the Horns. Watch as the linebacker (40) initially goes to the right side of the UT defense, then sprints back to the left as the ball is snapped.Moore said that likely contributed to Kendall not seeing him, but that is still something that he needs to see once the play starts, even though he identified a throwing lane before the backer arrived.
Bandit VanDarius Cowan made his first appearance of 2019, and it was an impactful one. On this play, his demonstrates his physical skills, blowing up the attempted block of a Texas running back before peeling back to bring down UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger. This is Cowan in his wheelhouse – attacking the pocket and bringing his speed and strength to bear.
Also note that Cowan came from the middle of te field, not the bandit’s base spot at the end of the defensive line. This isn’t a total departure, but WVU put its bandits in the middle of the field, rather than on the end of the line, more often than not against the Longhorns. That helped keep a defender in front of Ehlinger to prevent runs from the pocket.
Here comes the second interception, and as both Brown and Reagan noted, it’s a 50-50 ball the hit the receiver’s hands. Sam James isn’t able to get off the ground to attack the ball, allowing the Texas defender to come over the top to make a spectacular play, and that’s one of several downfield passes this year where WVU’s receivers haven’t been able to high point the ball or fight off an opponent.
One other note, though — James has to slow up for the ball, which allows the defender to catch up and get into his jump with a great deal of momentum. If the pass is a yard or two deeper, James would have been able to run under it, as he did on his first-quarter TD catch. This one falls into the “little bit of everything” category — a slightly underthrown pass, a loss in a 0ne-on-one confrontation, and a great play by an opponent.
“Window dressing” is a phrase used by West Virginia’s coaches to describe the misdirection and confusion they try to create in order to manufacture good opportunities, and the Mountaineer staff used a tweak to its motion to do so against Texas. Head coach Neal Brown often had players in motion at the snap, but against Texas the motion was often complete before the ball was put in play, being used to simply reset the formation and try to create a favorable matchup or force a Texas alignment error. Much of this involved someone (often Alec Sinkfield) either entering or departing the backfield. These weren’t necessarily designed to get the ball to the player in motion, but rather to create a mismatch elsewhere. The results may not be spectacular in terms of a bunch of big plays, but the moves did help WVU gain 463 yards on the day.
WVU was in motion on 17 of its 69 snaps – a lesser number than usual, but the effects were often very good.
This clip serves as a marker on how close West Virginia was to pulling off an upset. WVU gets a favorable alignment by putting TJ Simmons in motion, and has him one-on-one in a blocking assignment with leverage to the outside on a sweep to Kennedy McKoy. It also has a receiver downfield in perfect position to block a safety, so if the Mountaineers can just break even at the line of scrimmage, we’re looking at the potential for a long gain. Unfortunately, a block is missed on the left edge, and McKoy is dumped for a six-yard loss, putting the Mountaineers behind the chains. Look, especially from the end zone view, as this play develops, and add it to the “oh so close” category.
Kendall made a great read on his second quarter touchdown run, seeing a defender that he wasn’t supposed to read flash across his face as he meshed with Leddie Brown on a goal line play. Kendall pulled the ball and walked into the end zone as he executed the play well and added his own heads-up twist.
The same sort of situation played out here, with Kendall reading a front-side defender, but with the key coming on the back side. Kendall makes the right read, as the front side defender is blocked by Jovani Haskins, but if he had given the ball to McKoy, WVU likely scores a touchdown on the drive, rather than the field goal that resulted. This isn’t to criticize Kendall here – just to note the vagaries that can determine the success or failure of any play.
It might be one of the most lethal stiff-arms in the college game, and it belongs to Leddie Brown. WVU’s tough runner often uses his free hand to not just ward off defenders, but send them to the ground on tackle attempts. Here, he gets the Mountaineers out of a hole by winning a one-on-one battle.
It’s easy to say “this guy needs the ball more,” and it also should be noted that West Virginia wasn’t going to beat Texas by lining up and running the rock 50 times. However, given that there aren’t a lot of big gaps for Mountaineer backs to exploit, it would seem that at least a few more carries for a guy who runs it well in traffic, and breaks more than his share of tackles, would be a good thing,
Now for the back-to-back interceptions that put WVU in a hole from which it was too deep to recover. Brown noted this was a bad play call, given that it was third-and-one, and that a running play should have been able to cover that distance. UT has six in the box against six Mountaineer blockers, so they weren’t overloaded. The pass is thrown, though, and the end zone view shows that the ball is just a little bit inside receiver Sean Ryan, which allows the defender to create contact and force a deflection, which turns into a pick. The latter is a matter of some luck, but UT created it with an aggressive play. However, if this ball is thrown to the outside, it’s at worst an incompletion and at best a first down.
The coup-de-grace, and while this looks like an out-and-out forced pass or bad throw, Reagan noted that the receiver cut the route off short, and didn’t drive the defender off. That allowed him to undercut the throw and make the play. Had Kendall held the ball a beat longer, the crossing route in the middle of the field showed promise, but both of his coaches pointed out that the mis-run route was the real culprit on this interception.