Spoiler alert: Lots of Good in this edition. Been a while since the opener afforded us that opportunity. I, too, feel like starting fast, so let’s get into something we have to acknowledge at the outset here, if for no other reason than we talked about this very topic at the outset of the season. Episode Six of the 2015 in 15 countdown was about West Virginia’s luck, how uncanny it was in 2014 and how it just had to change this season.
Well, we’re dealing with a small sample, and that was such a mismatch Saturday that I’m not sure you’re wise to buy or sell too assertively based on it, but let’s state this: The Mountaineers had good luck in their opener. The first fumble recovery of the season (in the first game!) bounced out of a crowd of white and found Karl Joseph.
Then this happened, and it was quite the omen.
Favian Uphaw tackles himself. He might be gone if he doesn’t lose balance and crash. Daryl Workey is on the pitch, and it’d be a lot to ask him to reverse and then catch Upshaw. Nick Kwiatkoski is in the vicinity, but he’s trailing and he’s not catching Upshaw in the open. So if that pops, like it’s supposed to and like it’s going to if not for luck, then it’s a 13-7 game early in the second quarter and the walls close a little bit as the Mountaineers are made to wonder about Georgia Southern maybe figuring things out and how they need to figure out ways to finish drives.
But it didn’t happen.
Instead of celebrating a touchdown or marking off a first down, the Eagles end up punting. Amazing how little things can be big. Add luck to the many things that look to have improved and are worth feeling good about after one week. How did we get here? Let’s find out by examining the good and the bad of WVU v. Georgia Southern.
What if I told you that one of the few times I checked out of the wedding to check my phone Saturday night was right around 7:30 p.m., and I saw a Tweet about a personal foul penalty on the opening kickoff? And what if I told you I did a search and discovered WVU didn’t even return the kickoff? What was my reaction? (Answer: This.) So when I did sit down to watch the game, I was immensely interested in how this started (and how this was just 16-0 at the half).
Turns out it wasn’t that bad of a start. I mean, K.J. Dillon did something to get a penalty, and I told you he was going to be worth watching, but things got pretty interesting pretty quickly after that. Skyler Howard kept the ball on a zone read to start the season, which was something we debated, and the Mountaineers unrolled a bevy of formations in their quest to be multiple. Two backs and three receivers, four receivers and trips to the left, four receivers and twins on each side, the pistol with three receivers and a tight end on the line, the pistol with three receivers and a tight end in the backfield and then the pistol with motion. Howard was passing and running. The wide receivers were streaking deep. The ball was moving forward. The gaps between plays were short. They never let Georgia Southern get comfortable.
This is the end of the first drive, and this is where we begin the Jovon Durante part of the program. His first college touch woke up certain echoes, and it was just too easy. It was an easy route, an easy throw and a catch that he made look easier than it was. That’s encouraging composure at the end of a deep route and with the ball in the air … the first time the ball is in the air and headed your way. But let’s acknowledge Georgia Southern’s part in all of this. What’s going on with the safeties? There’s no way they never saw this on film — I suspect they didn’t know what to expect from Durante and Shelton Gibson — but the aforementioned formations and tempo combine to put defenses in conflict. Those guys are scurrying and a safety steps forward to cover a running back that a linebacker has. That leaves Durante in a 1-on-1 matchup with a path to get good leverage, and Howard will take that. You see why.
Now, he’s not perfect. Here, he doesn’t have his head turned fast enough to connect with Howard and walk in for a touchdown, and Durante acknowledged this immediately after the play. It’s a blitz, and he has to know, and likely does know now, everything happens faster in those situations. Later in the game, he’s motioning from right to left on the goal line and is wide open. Howard’s throw, I think, gets deflected and Durante can’t make a catch I bet he makes all the time. But those could and maybe should be touchdowns, and that’s part of the learning process after the game. (Related: I thought he blocked pretty well, too.) It’s perfectly clear, though, that Durante possesses and exhibits great talent. WVU will find ways to use it, and not necessarily as a wide receiver streaking up the rail.
Durante is on the hash. Watch the release here. You can’t jam that. He gets the corner to lean outside, and he transitions into his route without any shifting or hesitating. He’s inside the defender with a ton of space. The rest is just fun to watch.
Good: Speed demons
Back when WVU released its bogus depth chart not long after the end of camp, Durante and Gibson were on opposite sides and paired with Ka’Raun White and Gary Jennings. I reasoned that receivers coach Lonnie Galloway had the option to mix and match big and speedy receivers. Jennings barely played. White didn’t play. (Sixty-one other players did.) WVU opted for speed against a defense what was intent on pressing receivers outside and loading the box to stop the run. The opposition and the plans will change, but it doesn’t look like the speed need is going to change here. Size and muscle win some battles at that point of attack, but speed and twitch can get around a jam and, more importantly, get out of a crowd. Gibson’s up top here and he angles his first few strides outside, but then he steps inside in rhythm and spins the cornerback. If Howard sees the cornerback’s name, the ball’s going deep.
Howard held onto this ball too long, I thought, and it’s harder to catch this pass when you’re waiting on the route and then the ball isn’t immediately in front of you and is instead in a spot that asks you to adjust a little bit. Really, look at this again and picture the difference if the ball’s thrown a few steps sooner. It matters. But still, Gibson should have caught this one, and if you didn’t understand what he meant before, then let’s revisit Dana Holgorsen discussing Shelton Gibson’s drops and blips from August.
He has really good ball skills. I saw this in recruiting, when he was up here during camp. He can flat out go get a ball and catch it over his shoulder. Some guys have a very hard time with the transition of catching the ball over the shoulder, and have very good ball skills when it comes to attacking the ball this way. He’s as good as anybody I coached as far as going to get the ball, but he fights it when it’s coming at him. You fix that through repetition. You keep doing the same thing over and over again.
And now remember the 47-yard gain deep over the middle of the field when he had to leap and hang onto ball between defenders. He can flat out go get a ball.
It’s back. I guess it never left, and I know we’re going off of one game, but this could be a big deal. If you’re new here and/or not familiar with the genesis of this formation, understand Holgorsen pretty much invented it out of “sheer boredom” with offensive line coach Joe Wickline back at Oklahoma State in 2010. There are obvious benefits.
“We came up with the three-back system to isolate the outside guys,” Holgorsen said. “It’s easier for the quarterback to see if it’s man, one-on-one coverage when they’re all packed in as opposed to being spread out and those guys being able to disguise a bunch of stuff.”
Those guys would be the defenders and the diamond forced the defenses to play a little more transparent. By concentrating its personnel in the middle of the field and posing the possibility it can pass or run, the offense encourages the defense to make a decision.
“When you’ve got three backs in the backfield and the two wideouts go out, you’ve got to go out and cover the wideouts and take your chances stopping the three backs, or you have to drop a safety in and go one-on-one with your corners,” said WVU’s defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel.
Here’s a brief summary: You put nine offensive players in a box and two outside and the defense has to show its hand. Is it man? Is it zone? Cover 2? Cover 1? Cover o? It’s show and tell, and the offense thrives off if it. If the offense sees a soft box in which it has the defense outnumbered, expect a run. If the box is crowded and one safety is or no safeties are deep, expect a pass. And when your outside receivers are, like, 4.3 guys, how do you resist the urge to showcase this? The Mountaineers didn’t show it often Saturday, but when they did, it was effective.
The first snap…
Do yourself a favor: Pause it at the :05 mark. What are you going to do if you’re on offense there? Georgia Southern, which, again, was going to trust its coverage and create advantages against the run, then makes matters worse by getting its safeties too close before the snap. That’s simple stuff for the offense, and it’s the essence of Holgorsen’s M.O. Don’t fight the numbers. Take advantage of them. (Side Good: Yodny Cajuste was a bully. He didn’t let guys by, and he doesn’t work too hard here to wall off the left side. We spent time and space wondering about rotating players up front and spelling the redshirt freshman, but Cajuste never came out for a sub when the game was good. That was a very solid debut.)
A long while later, the second snap…
(Aside: I was “incredibly speeched” by Brian Baldinger here.) Stop it at :15 this time and again ask what you’re going to do. Note the differences. WVU’s shown this and hit a deep ball. This time, the Eagles are more wary of a pass, and the Mountaineers made them think this way with their relentless deep attack. One safety’s really deep. Another is at an ordinary depth. A corner is off the line. There are seven in the box now and five are on the line, so a few are going to be out of the play when it heads to the other side of the field. This is a run, and it works because WVU uses the numerical advantage.
And now the third diamond snap …
It’s the very next play. WVU just ran the ball with a great result, so Georgia Southern, which isn’t given a lot of time to process all of this, is leaning toward the run and then gobbles up a slight play fake. It’s 1-on-1 outside with no safety and, hey, Gibson makes a very nice play.
There’s a counterpoint to all of this as we move forward: Defenses are going to respect WVU’s pass game more and WVU’s run game has to produce bigger gains to deter that. This is true. If you’re worried about Durante and Gibson, you’ll take attention away from the run to help against the pass. If the runs aren’t capitalizing, then the defense wins. Are we yet at the point where we think WVU’s running backs automatically take advantage of this? I didn’t think so. I do think this is why the diamond might have a place moving forward. It forces the defense to declare, and that lets the offense adjust, but the blocking is better for the run and the routes are easier for the pass.
Good: Deep balls
This might be our new MTEP this season, because Howard threw 10 deep balls (I defined them as passes/routes when the throw traveled at least 20 yards). He was 6-for-10 for 251 yards and two touchdowns. There were a few passes where I thought a longer throw, a throw to a different spot or a better route to encourage a longer throw would have produced more yards and maybe even touchdowns. There were also times when Howard just put it up there in a 1-on-1, but don’t shake your head at that. It’s part of the offense. WVU trusts its receivers with the ball in the air, and for a day, it worked out fine.
Bad: Short balls
Earlier we mentioned the misses to Durante. This wasn’t good, either. Just like on the other two, the play does exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is good. The inside receiver runs his route and opens a window for Howard and Devonte Mathis, who’s a big target. There’s room for a throw and a touchdown here. It’s instead too high and brings on Josh Lambert for another field goal. That 44-0 thing masks this, but there won’t be as many days in the future that are so forgiving. We’re aware of Howard’s accuracy and his completion percentage in the past. He wasn’t sharp inside the 30 or in the red zone. Michael Burchett said half of Howard’s camp interceptions came when he was coming off the goal line and the defense compressed. Timing might have been the culprit here and a few other times Saturday, but tight spaces are something to track.
I’m weird, but I thought this was Howard’s best throw of the night. When your X and Z are peeling back the lid of the defense again and again, the middle is going to be open to chunk gains like this. The route and the throw — and the protection, let’s not forget — capitalize on the attention going to Durante and Gibson, and Howard steps into a big throw that he’ll have to make again and again this season.
Good: Chicken salad
Howard has a handle on this thing. Aside from one timeout, there was no sign of frustration during communication with Holgorsen. He got the team to the line quickly. He squatted down behind the line of scrimmage to change plays. WVU knows he’s going to turn in some negative plays because he likes to run around and keep things alive, and that did happen, but he was productive with his feet too. This looks like a screen play to Shell that the defense buries, so Howard sees his linemen outside and gains a few yards.
A while later …
This is a read play and he nails it. The outside end commits, and Howard sees it, so he keeps it, knows he’s faster and pushes the defender to the turf before taking the rough road toward the first down. There was an easier way to do either of those plays. Howard didn’t go that route either time, and his teammates appreciate that about him.
This is the next play. Watch Jordan Thompson, who starts in the slot, introduce himself to 6-foot-1, 250-pound Bernard Dawson.;
“I was just running a little, simple route, because it was a run play,” Thompson said. “Shell bounced it back outside. He’s my brother. He was in need of a block, so I came in and just hit him. I felt fine until I realized he tried to choke me and break my back. I’m just glad he didn’t tackle Shell. I got the job done. That’s all that matters.”
You won’t see this often: WVU had 11 return opportunities — five punts, four interceptions, one fumble recovery and one kickoff — and didn’t gain or lose a yard. A net zero. That’s a meaningless oddity, but it’s hard to do.
Someone asked me in the chat about a player to watch on the coverage teams. I said Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper were obvious picks, and each had a tackle on the kickoff team Saturday. Marvin “185-pound Lawrence Taylor” Gross had three. The first was on the opening kickoff, and I thought, “Whoa, Joseph’s covering kicks?” Gross wears No. 18. I thought I saw N0. 8, and Gross’s running and tackle looked enough like Joseph that I didn’t give it much thought. That’s a promising misidentification. (Aside: Xavier Preston wears No. 5, and I swear there were times in the game when Upshaw was confused and thought Preston was a safety and/or WVU was in a weird defense with a safety in for a linebacker. Linebackers don’t often wear single digits.)
OK, we’ve covered the offense and touched on the special teams ever so briefly. Now for the third side of the ball and the big finish. This is Georgia Southern’s first offensive snap. Don’t tell me Kwiatkoski didn’t plant a seed in Upshaw’s head. Hell, maybe Upshaw didn’t trip on accident in the first clip and maybe he “slipped” because he saw and remembered Kwiatkoski.
This play doesn’t actually happen because Kwiatkoski gets wiped out on a chop block, which kills the Georgia Southern drive, but look at Dillon. He was tuned in at the start and flew all over the field, but that didn’t really wane at all throughout the game. He was a safety and a linebacker. He was in coverage and he was blitzing. He stepped forward to stop the run and he put people on the ground in the open field. Then I look down at the stats and see he finished with four tackles and half a stop for a loss. And he didn’t field a punt, never mind return one. Maybe the specter of Dillon is enough to be a factor, and nobody on defense will apologize for that, but it does indeed seem like he can be someone who moves around and presents a threat all over the field.
Good: Tony Gibson
I was corresponding with a peer Monday, as we media types are prone to do throughout the season. This person was impressed with WVU’s defensive coordinator and his upward ascent. “Kind of boggles my mind given his long history but it’s hard to escape conclusion that Gibson is good.” Remember last summer when we simply wondered, “What if he’s good?” We might be getting an answer.
That was a clinical demolition of a very good offensive outfit. The turnovers are one thing — five things, I guess — but the Mountaineers did more than that. They stopped an offense that has been unstoppable so many times before. How? Gibby’s not really saying, and he says he’s not going to be taking any calls after people wouldn’t help him, but there were two things I noticed that I thought were interesting. First, WVU shaded its defensive line the opposite side of the running back — if the running back was on Upshaw’s left, the line shaded a touch to its left. It messes with the blocking, especially when tape showed Georgia Southern that WVU typically puts the nose over the center and the ends over the tackle’s outside shoulder.
There were other front oddities. Frequently a linebacker stepped forward to make it a four-man front, though what really bothered the Eagles was a Bear front, basically a 5-2 alignment that Gibson doesn’t often use. He didn’t use it a lot Saturday, but when he did, it worked. It was the three-man front with the ends lined up across from the guards, as opposed to outside the tackles, and then linebackers stepping up to the tackles to create a five-man front. The condensed defensive line took away the dive, and the linebackers on the edge gave WVU numbers to cover the perimeter and account for the quarterback and the pitch.
This isn’t brand new. WVU has moved linebackers and safeties before to show four- and five-man fronts. It didn’t happen regularly Saturday, but the Mountaineers said they did it when they did because they knew it would work against what they expected the Eagles to call. That it was in their pocket and deployed properly speaks volumes about preparation. Gibson did his own thing, up to and including reducing his blitzes, though I should point out that twice he went Cover 0 against four receivers and twice Karl Joseph intercepted the throw.
He was amazing, the rightful recipient of the national defensive player of the week award, and though he did shore up his tackling and man-to-man coverage and make plays all over the field and from all depth and angles, he did knock Jared Barber out of the game. Barber’s fine, though, and his return to the field Saturday and then again this week is obviously good for the Mountaineers.