The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers – Texas Longhorns
Texas has been using what amounts to a 3-2-6 defense, with a pair from the back number serving as hybrid safeties\linebackers. Several of the tactics they use are similar to other secondary-heavy alignments that are coming into vogue in the Big 12, which WVU and TCU brought with them when they entered the league in 2012.
With a reputation for playing physically, it’s therefore somewhat shocking to see the Longhorns not crowd the line of scrimmage with beefy defenders. Thus, the impetus to look at each defensive snap and count the personnel in the box. As always, the caveats of deciding who is in the box (we used a rough rule of anyone within six or so yards of the ball) come into play. UT also strives for confusion by keeping its slot defender in place at times, or turning him into a blitzer, if the slot he is lined up on goes in motion or relocates at the snap. We also included the alignments on plays that were negated due to penalties, so the totals here don’t match up exactly with WVU’s official offensive play count.
Texas used a five-man box on 28 plays, and a six-man set on 35. Those invited West Virginia’s run game to get on track, which it did with sparkling success. There were even three four-man boxes.
Conversely, the Horns loaded up with seven defenders on just 13 plays, with one eight-man and one ten-man line-crowding, short yardage defense rounding out the count.
Unfortunately for the home team, little of it mattered. West Virginia made the right diagnosis on the majority of its snaps, and kept the UT defense on its heels for most of the night.
We’re starting off with a rather innocuous looking play here as the projector whirs. Will Grier hits Jovani Haskins for a six-yard gain early in the first quarter, so what’s the big deal? Well, several things.
First, this pas signalled WVU’s intention to continue its tight end involvement in the offense. The catch was one of four receptions by Haskins on the day, and when combined with Trevon Wesco’s three catches it gave the Mountaineers another way to attack linebackers and safeties who were dropping to prevent deeper throws downfield. Haskins fits his route perfectly between two Longhorn defenders, setting up a nice second and four situation.
The Mountaineers also picked up a couple of important first downs on these short routes, and served notice that defenses won’t be able to blitz indiscriminately from the second level without fear of a tight end taking advantage of a resulting gap in coverage.
Sometimes it’s just not your day. WVU does everything right on this snap. It rushes seven, and every single Mountaineer defender beats his opponent and gets into the backfield. Two hit Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger as he launches a 35-yard throw, but he manages to place it right onto the hands of receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, putting it in the only place where he could make the catch.
This one seemed to set the tone for the entire game, as the Mountaineers were in position to make a number of plays, especially on third down, that it fell just short of finishing. If Ehlinger can make throws like that consistently, he’ll be up for Heisman consideration in the future.
Sometimes the events of a game cause me to overlook a play or performance that should have gotten more notice during and immediately after the game. Count that Austin showing of Marcus Simms in this category.
After barely being able to run early in the week, he recorded five catches for 55 yards against the Longhorns, and along the way made a pair of ankle-breaking cuts that shouldn’t have been possible given his health status. His showing was overshadowed because he didn’t have the marquee TDs other receivers did in the game, but his contributions were just as valuable.
Simms was so banged up through the week that he also yielded kickoff and punt return duties. Tevin Bush got just one chance, as UT kicked it off well, but an odd choice to squib one kickoff allowed him to get a solid 20-yard return to set the Mountaineers up at the 31-yard line.
This play exemplifies some of the confusion and missed assignments that ruled the day for the Mountaineer defense. WVU has Dravon Askew-Henry in the slot over Humphrey on the right side of the formation. Humphrey drives on linebacker David Long, a common tactic in route-running designed to force a reaction or create a better angle to receive a pass. Askew-Henry points as Humphrey starts the move, but then jumps outside rather than following Humphrey downfield.
This looks like man coverage with a single safety deep (man-free), and judging from Askew-Henry’s reaction as Humphrey sails into wide open space to collect an easy TD, there was some missed communication too.
WVU didn’t just run the ball against four-or five-man boxes as described above. The Mountaineers were also successful against six-man looks, and even against blitzes that had the potential of blowing up plays before they got started.
West Virginia blocks with just its five offensive linemen on the play, but is still successful because the Texas blitz comes outside, while running back Kennedy McKoy is provided with an inside rushing lane. (He gets help from a Texas D-Lineman who is untouched off the line, but who takes an outside gap while McKoy runs up inside him. He hits the crease at full steam, and with only one linebacker in the formation who didn’t rush, it’s a 15-yard pickup.
We won’t mention (o.k., we will) the cheap shot late hit delivered by Texas’ B.J. Foster that wasn’t flagged.
Longtime readers know of my aversion to running wide, or slow-developing plays, in short-yardage situations. While this fourth and one isn’t exactly a sweep, it does require running back Kennedy McKoy to run from the opposite side of the backfield to follow Wesco and little-used Logan Thimons. When Texas gets penetration on the edge, the play is doomed.
Note that the Longhorns have nineplayers in the box on this snap. The bet here is that if that happens again, a pass to a single-covered David Sills with acres of real estate to work with would be in the cards.
Oh those penalties. We remember the ones that are egregiously bad, but tend to forget the ones that were good calls. Still, the ratio of the former to the latter were a bit out of whack in this game. Out of 14 flags thrown on WVU, nine appeared to be excellent. In the remaining five, there were the two “Horns Down” flags, which can be debated — but head coach Dana Holgorsen would definitely put them in the poor category. Yodny Cajuste deserved a penalty for his shove following an extra point, but the ejection was an overreaction. Finally, holding calls against Gary Jennings and Darius Stills were simply awful.
Texas, too, got its share of bad flags, including a couple of holds that were, in reality, good blocks.
Here’s McKoy on the run again, and the highlight here is his patience in moving down the line until he sees a gap. That’s credit to him, but that he was able to do so several times in this game calls for another offensive line shout-out. Watch as all three interior linemen hold their blocks, then wash their opponents to the outside, which allows him to set up his 18-yard dash, which he punctuates by blowing the helmet off Texas’ Caden Sterns.
The blocking on Martell Pettaway’s second touchdown of the game was sublime. Against seven box defenders and two safeties creeping to within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, every Mountaineer lineman makes contact and does his job. Matt Jones (79) and Colton McKivitz (53) get to the second level to get an additional defender, and Trevon Wesco wipes out two potential tacklers five yards downfield.
Pettaway is untouched until he reached the two, and that’s just a desperation dive that had no effect. Let’s not forget TJ Simmons, who appears at the end of the run while blocking Kris Boyd out of the play. It’s hard to imagine a better hatted-up play.
As good as WVU’s use of the tight end was, I’d like to see some variation of this Texas play used. The Horns line their tight end up as a blocking back, then slip him out into a route. They tried this three times on the afternoon, and all three times Andrew Beck was wide open. This was the only pass they completed, but the two misfires were the result of an overthrow and a timing error.
And now the capper. Just let this one run on a loop for a few minutes to enjoy it before looking at what’s going on.
On its second two-point attempt, WVU again has David Sills isolated on the left, but Texas has not only switched its best defender, Kris Boyd, onto him, but it has also sent Jeffrey McCulloch (23) out into a robber position to take away the slant. WVU has Kennedy McKoy flanked wide right behind Trevon Wesco and TJ Simmons, with Gary Jennings in a tight slot. McKoy could catch a quick pass and try to score behind the blocking of Wesco and Simmons, which would be an option if UT chose to play zone. That group could also work some crossing or (legal) pick plays with Jennings, or Jennings and Sills could run crosses in the end zone. The choices are voluminous, and could definitely be modified or changed for future use. It might blow a coordinator’s mind to see the same formation and wonder if WVU was going to run the same options or not.
At the snap, though, we see it’s run all the way. Jennings simply occupies his defender with a straight block, and the trio on the right doesn’t run routes at all (although Wesco gets in one last block). Sills clears out Boyd by running to the back corner, leaving only six UT defenders with a reasonable chance at stopping Will Grier. The defensive line is blocked, one linebacker and the nickel back is caught up in the wash, leaving McCullough to make the play. Set to cut off the slant, he takes three false steps inside toward Grier, who breaks outside at just the right moment to leave him staggering in the burnt-orange turf.