The Film Room: WVU – Iowa State
WVU recorded another anomalous win over Iowa State; that being a low-scoring affair in the high-scoring Big 12. How did it come about, and what were the keys to the win? We head into the film room to break it down.
West Virginia’s long pass completions came despite Iowa State’s backed-up pass coverage, which often featured just three rushers and eight defenders in coverage. When deploying this, and also keeping two safeties deep, it’s particularly galling to give up a deep pass completion, but that happens here on WVU’s first series of the game. Will Grier buys time behind unstressed pass protection, but it’s a coverage error by the Iowa State safety, who fails to peel off inside leverage and get back deep to help Everett Edwards contend with Ka’Raun White, that allows the play to occur. That, plus White’s read and Grier’s patience.
This wasn’t the only time Cyclone safeties had problems with White. On his second quarter touchdown catch, a terrible angle by Reggie Wilkerson allowed White to get behind him for a score, and a stumble and fall on a deep third quarter route gave White the space for another catch. That was a big one, as it flipped the field and got WVU out of a situation where it was backed up in its own end.
Iowa State’s defense is predicated on not allowing big plays and giving help deep in pass coverage. When that fails, just as when any primary objective isn’t achieved, it’s demoralizing.
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Hakeem Bailey had a season’s worth of ups and downs in the game, but the resilience he displayed was one of the biggest differences in the contest. After a pair of pass interference calls, he might have been despondent, but instead, he kept on battling. On Iowa State’s last possession, he broke up a potential touchdown pass — to a receiver that wasn’t his responsibility. According to the coaching staff, another defender was assigned to the deep area where the following pass was thrown. The lob from Iowa State QB Kyle Kempt was the slightest bit underthrown, which allowed Bailey to hustle back and break it up.
In the clip, note the pair of WVU defensive backs caught looking inside in the middle of the field. Bailey’s all-out recovery prevented an easy Cyclone touchdown that could have flipped the outcome.
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Speaking of those pass interference calls, this one is just awful. Bailey makes a textbook break on the ball, and reaches to knock it away. Did he touch ISU receiver Matthew Eaton? Probably. Did that impede him, or spin him, or prevent him from his own shot at the ball? No. The Big 12 is full of great quarterbacks, but passing totals are also helped by over-sensitive officiating that puts secondaries on their heels.
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Former quarterback Joel Lanning has been the best two-way player in the country. The Iowa State senior has developed into an outstanding linebacker, but has continued to run a package of plays at quarterback. Why then, didn’t ISU use him on either of the situations when it called a QB run?
The tactic of surprise is one explanation, but Kempt would have to be wide open in order to gain ground — running isn’t his forte. Still, the Cyclones tried to catch WVU napping with a Kempt keeper out of an empty set on third and four from the WVU 27-yard line, and later had him keep the ball on the goal line behind a lead blocker. On either play, especially the latter, Lanning would have been a much better option. West Virginia stuffed both, forcing field goals instead of touchdowns.
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Both teams were also hurt by early whistles that prevented additional yardage — and in one case, perhaps a score. Gary Jennings, fighting for extra yards after a third quarter reception, was ruled stopped, even though he was continually moving forward. He did have two, and then three, defenders hanging on him, but his forward progress never stopped. One quarter later, the Cyclones got an even worse call, when Allen Lazard spun away from a gaggle of West Virginia defenders and headed up the sideline with open field in front of him. A whistle was blown after the contact, and after Lazard had gotten free. That was a huge break for WVU, as it resulted in an ISU punt rather than a big gain and another foray into scoring position — or perhaps a score on the play itself.
Did all of that stem from this play, where WVU’s Marvin Gross was penalized for unnecessary roughness? No whistle was sounded until after Gross’ hit, although the progress of Hakeem Butler was clearly stopped. A debate might be had that Gross could have been flagged for targeting, but he made contact with his shoulder, not the crown of his helmet. It’s not illegal to leave your feet for a tackle so long as there isn’t straight contact to the head, and Gross hits Butler on the shoulder. The point, though, is that the whistle was late — and perhaps that sparked the early tweets that followed.
One final point: if this was unnecessary roughness, then so too was Allen Lazard’s hit on Mike Daniels, which knocked the Mountaineer cornerback out of the game in the first quarter. That one came after the whistle.
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Need an easy explainer on what a run-pass option play looks like? Here you go. RPOs come in many forms, but at their core they all share the same tactic. The quarterback reads a specific defender, or perhaps two defenders or a set in combination, and makes a decision based on what that defender does. In theory, the play should always have some success, because it’s designed to give the defender two choices, with the play attacking the choice the defender doesn’t make.
In this case, it’s the safety on the left side at the four-yard line as the ball is snapped. He heads forward to defend against the run, which leaves the cornerback one-on-one with David Sills, who makes his own diagnosis and sees that he has room for a quick move to the post. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.
This was one of the few times in the first half when Iowa State went to a four-man defensive front, and that also played into Will Grier’s pre-snap read. The Cyclones put four defenders on the line no more than five times in the first half, and three of those were on blitzes, where a linebacker or safety immediately crossed the line to crash the backfield. In the second half, in response to West Virginia’s running success, Iowa State lined up with more four-man fronts, as a linebacker, and sometimes a safety, played there in run support. Backers also were generally a bit tighter in the box, which helped limit WVU’s running game.
That was particularly apparent on three short yardage situations in the third quarter, when WVU failed to convert on third-and-two, fourth-and-two and third-and-one. For all the success of the running game on the day, those missed chances marred the overall picture. Convert either of the first two, and West Virginia is on its way to another score and likely puts the game away early.
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West Virginia’s clock management at the end of the first half was mediocre at best, and prevented the Mountaineers from having at least a couple of shots at a touchdown, instead of a field goal attempt that missed. Both Justin Crawford and Marcus Simms failed to get out of bounds after receptions, which drained additional time off the clock. WVU had to use one of its timeouts to stop the clock after Crawford’s decision, and Simms nearly ran all the remaining time off the clock with his catch.
Starting the drive, WVU, ran the ball with 1:30 to play, which is fine. However, the Mountaineers didn’t snap the ball again until 1:06 remained, which isn’t. That WVU was keeping one eye on not giving the ball back to the Cyclones with much time remaining if it failed to get a first down is understandable, but ISU doesn’t possess a quick strike offense. Had West Virginia gotten to the line with reasonable pace, it might have had the time for a couple more snaps at the end of the drive.
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West Virginia is last in the Big 12 in sacks, but if its defensive linemen can make just one play each like this per game, it will get out of the basement. Here, Ezekiel Rose, who has developed into the most consistent deliverer of pocket pressure, storms past his opponent and brings down Kempt. Rose has been an undervalued performer for the Mountaineers this year, as he also serves on the punt and kickoff return teams, but its here where he can have an even bigger impact.
Watch how Rose, at left end, uses a great inside move to slip past the tackle, and when ISU running back David Montgomery delivers only a half-hearted effort to chip him, it’s a clear path to the takedown.