The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Kansas

November 25, 2015 by Mike Casazza


We’re 10 games into the season and, what, four games into this run game renaissance. A lot of time has transpired, a lot of things have changed and a lot of items have been shown and seen. West Virginia was in its rarest form Saturday in Kansas, not merely because the day produced a 49-0 final score, the first conference shutout since 2005, the first year with two shutouts since 1996 and the first time since 1969 three players had 100 yards. The Mountaineers were doing and showing things they hadn’t really done or shown much if at all before. There were new ideas, there were old things with new appearances and there were old ideas done in new ways.

I think we’ve seen this particular formation now and then and not much more than that. But I think it’s always been a draw. This was not a draw, which is what the defense just has to expect. And it wasn’t a power play, which would probably be second in line in the minds of the Jayhawks. It’s a zone play to the left, and Skyler Howard’s legs have essentially moved defenders to the opposite of the play — what I mean is that since he can run the ball, there’s no need for a running back in the backfield, and that running back can go right and take a safety with him.

It quite nearly worked, too.

Pause it at :02. Cody Clay widens out. That lets left tackle Marquis Lucas combine with left guard Stone Underwood to handle the defensive end, and Clay and Lucas create an alley. If Howard goes to that space, he’s 1-on-1 with the safety. Plays like this are supposed to create 1-on-1s, and though Howard might not win that confrontation, he also might win it. Howard instead cuts it inside, no doubt because he really trusts center Tyler Orlosky, who has had better snaps than this one.

But this was there, and given the volume of running plays in practice and in games, WVU won’t make a mess of this too many times. (Aside: This doesn’t look easy, and it’s not as easy as it looks.)

Uh, Mike, what’s so rare about this? Why lead with one play and just a minor alteration?

Get your own blog! Good question! This was only one leaf on the branches the offense has been and is sprouting.

Surely by now you know WVU runs power plays in gap schemes, which is a fancy way of saying when the offense gets away from zone blocking and goes between the tackles, it likes to have the offensive linemen on the side of the play seal off the defense inside and climb up to the linebackers if possible while a guard guard pulls from the back side of the play to clear the way.

Last week against Texas, we saw a wrinkle. Here’s a power play that includes fullback Elijah Wellman.

That’s actually a counter play. It’s a power play with the offensive linemen on the play side sealing and climbing and the added fullback assuming the role of the pulling guard, who now takes on the outside linebacker or defensive end while the fullback clears a path.

So WVU’s added a concept to its offense by only giving the fullback the guard’s job and then asking the guard to block someone different and at the same time obvious. (And this isn’t the best example, because Texas gets got, which is nevertheless a win for the offense.)

The Mountaineers again had this rolling against Kansas, and it was really fun to watch.

But … but there was no Wellman there. That was Wendell Smallwood playing the role of fullback and blocking the linebacker, and how often has WVU used Rushel Shell and Smallwood together this season? Not often, right? As it was, WVU barely used Wellman with another running back on these counters. Wellman was actually used most on the counters with Cody Clay and another running back in the diamond, and it was new and startling.

No contest. Untouched through the middle. The right guard gets the outside defender. Clay (bottom of the screen) gets a second-level defender and Wellman clears a linebacker from Shell’s pathway.

Did I say it was startling? Shell scored not one, but two touchdowns on the play. WVU didn’t abandon the ordinary power runs, either, and Smallwood scored one of his two touchdowns on the play — actually no, he didn’t, because Wendell Smallwood, but he pushed in on the next play.

But watch those last two runs. They’re similar and different and effective. Knockout punches, man.

The counters are new, and the Mountaineers spent a few weeks working on this in practice before they ever brought it out of the garage.

“We started to look at it from different formations and think, ‘How can we take this thing that looks really good and expand it even more now?’” Crook said. “It gets guys moving and it’s something our guys are good at. They go out and execute it, and we’ve got running backs who are pretty good at sticking their foot in the ground and going vertical with it.”

The success is in the deception, though. The Mountaineers are doing something new by showing something familiar.

“It looks like we’re going to go outside zone, but then we take a counter step and come back with a guard pulling the other way and another back leading the way to pick up anything extra,” said Wendell Smallwood, WVU’s first running back in eight seasons to have four straight 100-yard games.


(Aside: Remember how WVU used to get tripped up by the unblocked defender on the back side of plays? This takes care of that.) WVU pulled the cover off the counter against Texas, and that thing’s on wheels and taking this offense places. Seriously…

WVU’s in a four-receiver set, which we know is not common this season, and this ends up being a counter without any sort of assistance from the fullback. It might be a trap that uses the pulling guard to seal off the side the run goes to. I don’t know. I do know WVU kept doing it — left side! — because it worked, and if you know Holgorsen, you know that if it works, he’ll do it again.

We’d not seen many of these things, but now we’re to a point where a single aspect — pulling guards — worked and spawned a handful of new plays that feature that single aspect in wholly different ways. That’s next-level stuff taking this rebooted offense to the next level.

How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Kansas.

Use it. You know you will.
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Plan your weddings accordingly

November 24, 2015 by Mike Casazza










The 2016 football schedule is out, and there’s what faces West Virginia. There’s but one homestand, and the final 11 games alternate road/neutral and at home. I think most teams would like a chance to play some home games in conference play in succession because of momentum, but the flip side here is WVU isn’t on the road in back-to-back weeks, either.

The larger concern? WVU is off after its second and fourth games and then not at all in the final eight weeks of the season. The Mountaineers again play on the final Saturday of the season, interestingly against Baylor, but that robs the coaches of a head start on recruiting. Bonus? Only Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas are off that week.

Tuesday changeup

November 24, 2015 by Mike Casazza

At some point in time after taping this last night, Tier 4 lost a soldier. My camera just sort of stopped working, and that’s going to preempt your normally scheduled Taboo. Here’s the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special in its stead.

It’s not impossible I fix this before kickoff, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing today.

We need to break off our route and throw some spotlight elsewhere (and I need to do a lot of work in a condensed week). Football’s our focus here, what with three 100-yard rushers for the first time in 46 years, but what about other WVU items in triplicate?

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WVU v. Bethune-Cookman: Matchup problems

November 23, 2015 by Mike Casazza


You are looking sort of live at the Coliseum where hundreds if not thousands presumably will watch WVU v. Bethune-Cookman in the second game of the preliminary stage of the Las Vegas Invitational. I snapped this photo was with less than 14 minutes left before tip-off, so the stands could fill, but it’s the Monday before Thanksgiving and the students are on a week-long break. Whether or how the count ends up above last Monday’s 8,101 in Charleston ought to be interesting.

I think we’ll pay attention to lineups and combinations tonight, because WVU is two very different teams with three forwards and with three guards … not at once, of course, because that would be illegal. Lethal, sure, but also illegal. But the more Bob Huggins is able to used these early soup cans to experiment and cultivate pairings and groupings, the better the Mountaineers are for the more serious part of the schedule.

That said, it’s hard not to like WVU’s frontcourt so far, and not just because Devin Williams and his three double-doubles in this 3-0 start (and let’s see him stalk the single-season mark for free-throw attempts). It seems Huggins has some talent and depth beyond the preseason honorable mention Big 12 player.

Williams is getting plenty of help on the interior, too. Jonathan Holton had a double-double in each of the first two games of the season, and then sophomore big man Elijah Macon scored a career-high 18 points on 8 of 8 shooting against Stetson.

Macon’s confidence is up, his weight is down and he is flashing an array of skills, like his penchant for passing.

“I’m glad you’re catching on to that,” Macon said to me after Friday night’s win.

Macon said he has dropped about 10 pounds and is focused solely on basketball these days.

“I’ve been watching a lot of film and I’ve just tried to keep my mind on basketball this year,” he said. “I had a lot going on last year.”

Macon and Williams have both flashed passing skills out of the post.

“I think we both pass the ball very well,” Williams said. “It’s not seen as much when you have a Juwan Staten and Gary Browne out there, it’s not needed as much. Our role last year was just score the ball close and grab rebounds … it’s a chance for us to go out there and show what else we can do.”

WVU could take another step when the overall game of Esa Ahmad transitions to the college level. The 6-foot-7 freshman scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Stetson, but he also turned the ball over five times and missed four of his five foul shots.

It’s a mixed bag, but the kid from Cleveland can play.

“I think he’s more complete,” Huggins said when comparing Ahmad to other freshmen he has coached. “He hasn’t shot the ball very well because he really bruised his shoulder and they wanted him to not use that shoulder so much. He isn’t shooting the ball very well because he hasn’t shot very much.

“He can pass it, he can rebound it, he can handle. We are going to try and make it so I can say he can guard too. If he’s in the gym all the time, he shoots it OK.”

Huggins later added a few words that should delight WVU fans: “He’s kind of a joy to coach,” he said.

It’s a joy to work in the post for you all. Let’s begin.

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Dana Holgorsen: Iowa State week

November 23, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Somewhat brief, somewhat informative.

Texts From Kansas Game Day

November 23, 2015 by Mike Casazza

So, Saturday’s going to be weird. West Virginia has its senior day, which will be emotional as usual and because of Karl Joseph and a class full of players who’ve endured a lot in four or five years. The Mountaineers will also play a team with a lame duck coach.

As expected, Paul Rhoads was fired Sunday, but he’s going to coach at Mountaineer Field. That’s weird as hell, man. Coaches announce their retirement and “announce their retirement” and finish the season, but I can’t remember something like this. But I’m beat, too, because I traveled all day Sunday, so maybe I’m missing something. Am I missing something?

Anyhow, I’m not sure the crowd will know what to do about that. He’s a villain, to be sure, because of his role in 13-9, but he’s done and still coaching the team like something out of a Disney movie, and that’s hard to hate, no? Great guy, too. Popular among his players, fans and media. Never in trouble. Never embarrassing Always one of my favorites to talk to, someone even common fans rooted for.

Remember this?

That’s the sort of thing that made it so hard for Iowa State to make this move and why Rhoads is being allowed to do what he’ll do Saturday. He’ll have a job somewhere soon, because he’s a very good defensive coach, but you better believe the Cyclones will have something up their sleeve for the finale. They had nothing to play for … until the coach got fired? Weird, but why shouldn’t that be the case in this odd season?

WVU could use the win to keep the arrow pointing up and to further solidify its season. It would make sense, too, in a season that hasn’t made a ton of sense across the country. But when you see the Big 12’s top teams knocking one another off the shelf, and you see the Mountaineers feature better players, coaching and execution than their recent opposition, you probably develop a different perspective for the season.

And that brings me to today’s texts. Subdued! Needed brackets once, which was normal in September and the furthest from normal last month. Kansas was just terrible, but not in the fun terrible sort of way. The Jayhawks weren’t feisty for a half or a quarter and didn’t submit a bunch of follies. It was like competently bad — not insulting, not laughable, but not threatening in the least, either.

Maybe Iowa State storms into town and changes all that. Maybe not. When the pain cuts you deep, when the night keeps you from sleeping, just look and you will see that I will text your remedy.

Worst thing about away gamedays is I always find myself listening to Dale Wolfley on the radio.

Injured right hand for Howard? That’s like Stevie Wonder with cataracts

3 and out, Smallwood never touching the ball, Baldinger mocking us

Who in THE hell was that????? Uh…Smallwood please! That’s why we had a quick 3 and out! Why can’t Dana EVER just stick to what works??????? #AlreadyFrustrated!

Dana’s hair is full McCracken after that first series

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Sunday Buffet: WVU 49, Kansas 0

November 22, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Remember October? Neither does West Virginia, which is making the most of the football season’s 11th hour by winning in the 11th month. A simple — that’s the right word, right? — 49-0 win against Kansas moved the Mountaineers to 3-0 this month.

WVU was 3-9 in its first three Novembers in the Big 12.

To hear the players and the coaches talk about it, they never wavered when the season was at its wobbliest moments. I wrote about this before, but it’s topical again because it’s being referenced again. The seniors and their head coach had a meaningful meeting before the first November game, and that chat didn’t reset or refocus as much as it did remind everyone about what they were trying to achieve.

You have to think it’s worked, because Saturday’s game was over before it started … and then the Mountaineers hit for 28 points in the first quarter.

But before they boarded their buses at 8:15 a.m. and then rained rushing yards on the Jayhawks, they met in a conference room at their hotel.

“I told them to be down there at 6:45, that the meeting would start at 6:45,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They were all bright-eyed at 6:30, so we started 15 minutes early. That told me that they were ready to go.”

Cornerback Terrell Chestnut forced a fumble recovered by safety Jarrod Harper on Kansas’ second play, and WVU’s Rushel Shell followed with the first of his team’s five rushing touchdowns. On the second play of the next Kansas drive, Chestnut guessed right on the receiver’s route, intercepted the throw and returned it 32 yards for a score.

The Mountaineers led 28-0 at the end of the first quarter, their most productive quarter since scoring 35 points in the second quarter of the 2012 Orange Bowl against Clemson. Not that WVU needed any help, but that quieted much of the crowd of 21,415 at Memorial Stadium that weathered the 11 a.m. kickoff and 20 mph winds that made the 36-degree day feel 13 degrees cooler at the start.

“If ever there were a situation they shouldn’t have been ready to play, this is it,” Holgorsen said. “All due respect to Kansas, but it was cold and windy and there’s nobody here and all that stuff. But our guys didn’t care about that. It was all about us.”

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WVU v. Kansas: Celebration time!

November 21, 2015 by Mike Casazza


You are looking live at Kivisto Field inside Memorial Stadium, where West Virginia can clinch bowl eligibility with a win. Also, it’s windy! But unlike past seasons when WVU has traveled to road venues and had its offense bitten by the wind, I find it hard to believe these breezes are stiff enough to move a handoff 5 or 6 inches to the left or right and disrupt things. 

The Mountaineers will have to and try to pass it a little bit, and it appears Skyler Howard will again be the starting quarterback. We didn’t give enough attention to this throughout the week, but his right hand is not all right. He dinged it late last week against Texas and had it wrapped in an ice pack after the game, which isn’t particularly newsworthy.

But on Tuesday, the day the players and coaches talk to reporters, nobody saw his right hand. It was sheathed inside a sweatshirt, but he spoke promisingly about his ability to grip and throw.

We also talk to players before they practice Tuesday, which is the first day of the for days of practice that matter as it relates to the weekend’s game. Chatter’s found its way to me this week that there was at elast concern about the hand.

Well, a WVU envoy tells me the plan is for Howard to start. He has to get through warmups, but that’s the expectation. I he cannot start or finish, the Mountaineers have William Crest and not David Solls o Chris Chuganov, ready to go.

That’s something to eyeball, for sure, and that’s kind of fun because we think we know what’s going to happen in this game. The Mountaineers are 26 1/2-point favorites (with an over/under of 57?) and they’re going to run the ball 50-some times. Wendell Smallwood’s going to be aimed at the Big 12’s second-worst rush defense and he’s going to get tackles inside the 3-yard line at least once.

The talking point/punchline this week is Smallwood can’t score, and there is some truth to that. He has 167 carries and six scores, and you can see for yourself that he hasn’t crossed the goal line a lot lately. We’re talking one score in 88 carries. In the past four games, he’s been tackles inside the 3 five times and he’s carried wice from the 1 and not scored.

Smallwood ranks No. 19 nationally with 1,119 rushing yards and No. 14 with 124.33 yards per game. An above-average 132 yards today moves him into the top 10 of WVU’s single-season totals and leaves him fewer than 500 yards from Steve Slaton’s school-record 1,744 yards in 2006.

But of the 26 FBS players with at least 1,000 yards this season, only three have scored fewer touchdowns than Smallwood. One has more yards than Smallwood and all three have more carries. Those same three players are the only ones among the 33 averaging 100 yards a game who have scored less often than Smallwood. (The ironic part of this is Smallwood has been chastised in the past for pushing too hard toward the end zone and reaching the ball across the goal line, both of which contributed to fumble problems before.)

This is all very frustrating and funny to Dana Holgorsen, who likes touchdowns and who knows how to get through to players like Smallwood, who’s a good sport. A couple days ago, Holgorsen pulled Smallwood aside at practice, walked him toward the end zone and explained that the goal line was. The coach has made at least four other jokes at the running back’s expense the past two weeks, and Smallwood doesn’t seem to mind.

But he’s keeping score, and when he does score again and silences his coaches, watch out.

“I think I’m going to get one soon and break out something crazy, just for them,” he said. “I might take the ball to them, like, ‘How do you like that? I can do it.’ ”

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A terrible reminder

November 20, 2015 by Mike Casazza

I’m off to Lawrence, Kan., today, where two years ago I saw one of the strangest things ever. WVU lost to Kansas, which had lost 27-straight Big 12 games, and then the fans rushed the field. It’s still hard to believe, but that was the deepest part of the lowest time of Dana Holgorsen’s five seasons with the Mountaineers. Bad!

The Jayhawks are very different, except for the few players who remain and the fact they’re still  paying Charlie Weis, and WVU is trying hard not to focus too much on that season’s game. Linking Saturday to Nov. 16, 2013, links this team to that team and this team believes it’s come a long, long way since then. Kansas really has not with but one Big 12 win since then.

So the Mountaineers are taking the high road, one would think, out of respect for their own gains as well as for the opponent that’s young and trying hard and nothing at all like the one that won two years ago. But the high road is also a place where WVU feels like it belongs, if only because it believes its in a better place then the Jayhawks.

But don’t believe the Mountaineers are totally over that loss and that memory and they’re immune to channeling experiences for motivation. Because they are not.

“It was terrible,” senior cornerback Terrell Chestnut said. “That’s what it was. Terrible. The whole thing. Everything was terrible. Anytime an opposing team storms the field against you, it’s never a good feeling. It humbled us.”

That feeling is more familiar than the Mountaineers would like. A season ago, the Mountaineers lost to TCU on a field goal as time expired and then played uninspired a week later in a loss to Texas.

“That’s the game that really derailed our season,” Chestnut said. “We were sure they wanted to come in and do the same thing to us.”

So the motivated Mountaineers and their healthy memories beat the Longhorns last week, and Chestnut said it was his idea to pick up Holgorsen and crowd-surf him around the locker room — because that’s what happened to Texas coach Charlie Strong the year before.

“No disrespect to him, but I got tired of seeing Charlie Strong get crowd-surfed by his team in the locker room after playing us,” Chestnut said. “I think it was only fitting we did that when we beat them.”

I’ll leave you with today’s road game challenge: Final score and critical statistic, in honor of Kansas grad and noted sabermetrician Bill James.

You’ll Never Talk Alone: S4E10

November 19, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Come one, come all for the weekly WVU football (and other sports) chat at 11 a.m. The queue is open now or you can submit questions live. If you can’t make it, catch the replay at your convenience.

Live Blog You’ll Never Talk Alone: S4E10