WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Maryland

Saturday was a fun one. Beautiful weather. Hall of Fame occasion. Brad Paisley cameo. Lots of offense. Tremendous defense. On and on it went, and it lent itself to a festive atmosphere in the stands. The place was packed and earlier than normal. It’s not often West Virginia pulls 61,000-plus into the stadium in non-conference play these days and then hammers the opponent. Those are the type of beatdowns reserved for lesser teams from conferences that aren’t quite as B1G.

I saw a number of people wearing costumes, but for obvious reasons, Shredder, clad in gold and blue, seemed apropos. He was great, and he actually showed up at my house with pizza after the game. That’s not a joke. That’s a true story, and I wasn’t there for it, which is another reason I feel like covering games is a bit overrated. You miss so much!

But that’s the sacrifice as well as the beauty of this here feature.

We knew the Mountaineers were much, much better than Maryland after 60 minutes Saturday. Truth be told, it was 15 minutes and possibly 10, despite the objections of Mr. Andrew Zeller afterward. For whatever reasons, WVU was that much better, and understand the on-task home team had as much to do with that as did the undisciplined-upon-unraveling visitors.

I was trading texts with one of you before the game, and I confessed I couldn’t instinctively assume WVU was indeed better than Maryland. I picked WVU to win, but I saw Maryland play Bowling Green, and I thought a weather delay after halftime slowed the Terrapins down and that they weren’t able to keep up once the Falcons got going. “A bad quarter,” I reasoned. Then I saw them outclass USF, a team with talent, despite three Caleb Rowe interceptions. Maryland matched up well and better at most of the spots, and I was probably right to wonder if WVU would enjoy a wide roster-quality disparity in Morgantown.

I was wrong, but I was right to wonder. You hadn’t seen enough of Saturday’s WVU to just expect it when the opportunity is there — and, man, was it there — but I think it’s fair to believe Saturday’s WVU exists, that 45-6 wasn’t the consequence of circumstances but rather a good team doing what it’s supposed to do. Ultimately, it was what we did know about Maryland that proved most meaningful: Not exceptionally led, will turn it over, will commit penalties and will get exposed in the secondary. The Mountaineers did their homework and finished early to saunter into the polls at 3-0.

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

Bad: Scheduling conflicts
We don’t have all the footage from the game because men driving in circles went long and took up some of the football telecast. Without getting too involved with contractual arrangements and obligations or any debate about the money in automotive sports advertising, let me just say it’s absurd that a third-tier NASCAR event, a truck race sponsored by a generic ass Cabella’s, took up a chunk of a college football game on a Saturday afternoon. Look, Fox is party to an enormous 10-year, $8.2 billion television contract with NASCAR, and that’s a bigger deal — literally and figuratively — than the stake it has in the 13-year, $2.5 billion deal with the Big 12. I’ll probably surprise you here when I tell you the truck race had higher ratings Saturday. But let’s not pretend the NASCAR pact is for rights to the UNOH 175 and for that race to bleed into a football game. The Big 12 deal is for rights to football games, first and foremost. There has to be a way around this.

Good: Dravon Henry
This is nonsense, but it’s also a necessity. I teach a class on campus on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and I’m also an environmentalist. I ride the Mountain Line, which is the community bus, and that means I have to wait around a bit outside the Mountainlair after class. It’s a great time. I see friends, former professors and former and current students. It’s a fabulous stage for people watching. I can read the newspaper or knock out some clerical stuff I don’t often give myself time to do. But I see Henry pretty much every time I’m on campus, and he’s usually floating around on the Segway. It’s captivating. He’s stopping traffic in so many ways in that photo, but you should see him doing tricks and spins and such. It’s showmanship. He knows everyone is looking at him, because he’s Dravon Henry, and Dravon Henry is rolling around on something from the future, so if people want a show, he’s going to give them a show. I fully expect he’ll be hitting switches come November.

…where was I?

Ah. Henry played all right Saturday. Nothing special and nothing too disastrous, but one play early caught my eye. Watch him … segue … into the fray.

Center Evan Mulrooney cuts Jared Barber, and Barber is down. Left tackle Michael Dunn then comes over and looks like he’s going to squash Barber. Henry is not having that. He goes after Dunn and chops him down. WVU was aware there would be some cutting. Defenders don’t like that, and that expectation, I think, added to some of the animus that existed before kickoff. It’s 14-0 by now, and WVU is already ticked off because of the hit on Skyler Howard, but this was a pretty clear indication the Mountaineers were not going to brush off these things. (Side Good: Shaq Petteway nearly gets cut-by-association but turns an evasive hurdle into a fun tackle.)

Good: Buckle up
Shelton Gibson was visibly angry about safety A.J. Hendy’s hit on Howard. He vocally shared his thoughts after. (!) I don’t think the Mountaineers respected him at all during or after this one. Hendy is the defender wearing No. 19 who is lined up on the second level outside left tackle Yodny Cajuste. He wants and has nothing to do with this play, and then he comes in and whacks center Tyler Orlosky.

And that was probably the most physical thing the secondary did.

Maryland answered the pregame question — How will the Terrapins defend WVU’s offense? — by committing to neither the run nor the pass and expecting it could out-player and/or out-execute the Mountaineers. It’s not an inherently bad idea. I’ll get to that. But WVU shrugged, ran for 304 yards and took what it wanted in the pass game.

To be blunt, I think the Mountaineers thought the Terrapins were soft and could be pushed around, run or pass. Hendy was involved in a lot of that.

There’s nothing to fear there. Imagine if Karl Joseph or K.J. Dillon — or someone on Oklahoma’s roster or TCU’s — had that look.

There weren’t a lot of deep throws, but WVU didn’t have many looks. The Terrapins had a sound plan, though only in theory and ultimately not in application. They use their defensive line and periodic help from the linebackers to create pressure, and that was mostly the same early Saturday, which left a veteran secondary in a more secure position to defend the pass. It’s not unreasonable to ask your front to succeed against the run and to ask the experienced back end to keep the pass in front of it.

WVU just ran the available routes like it didn’t think Maryland could cover and tackle.

If you’re going to scoot your corners back, you’ve got to have something in the middle, either to combat the run or take away throws like that. Howard was able to step into throws and use the middle, either on slants or newly deployed shallow crossing routes, with great success.

In the first two games, I think it’s fair to say WVU ran the ball better on the perimeter than it did up the middle. The Mountaineers were quite the opposite in their third game and did their best and most damage by going at the heart of the defense.

Maybe the Mountaineers tricked Maryland, though that seems unlikely because WVU didn’t do anything different. Just took what was there. Some of that was outside, too. With the corners back and the runs in the middle making hay, the Mountaineers started picking on what was available on the outside, which led to an emotional reunion later in the day.

And you have to think they did because they knew they could.

You shouldn’t score on this play. You want to. That’s why Dana Holgorsen called it, and this is what the runs in the middle created. But it’s just ordinary all around. The safety on the near hash is on the play fake and the run, and that leaves Howard with a 3-on-2 outside. Jovon Durante actually blocks the wrong guy first, but he realizes it and responds almost favorably, except he didn’t really block anyone. But he got in the way, and Saturday, that was really all that was needed. The safety on the near hash spying the run sees it’s a pass and pokes around the play to no effect.

That, again, was Hendy.

WVU doesn’t do much right on this play except to once more just get in the way, and that is enough to let Devonte Mathis get his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame squared up with the first down marker. (Don’t get me wrong: It’s not easy to block out in space like that when you can’t see everything else happening, and it’s as important to give the receiver time to get square as it is to give the receiver space to exploit. Gibson ultimately scored on his play because he had time that he used to his advantage.) How the first two Maryland defenders don’t make a play is probably a matter of desire, but Mathis had no regard for anyone. He gets going and doesn’t even try to juke the last defender. He knew no one would be grasping for him, so he loaded up, fired off and got the better end of the meeting.

Give you one guess who that defender was.

It happened a bunch. This is not to single out Hendy, who did miss all of last season. He’s played well against WVU in the past, and he was not alone in missteps Saturday. But it was just a bad day for him on a day he was needed to come forward to make his plays and, ideally, discourage a lot of WVU’s.

Looking back now, I can’t believe WVU didn’t expect that sort of passive personality from the secondary.

Bad: Tuesday Taboo
Disaster. Rushel Shell looked good and at times great, the proper foil to an explosive Wendell Smallwood. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Shell watched Episode 3.

“I felt like a lot of people were doubting me, not feeling like the same fan base that — how do I put this? — they weren’t still supporting me like they used to,” Shell said. “They didn’t think I could be a factor in the offense or a factor playing football, period.”

Now, it didn’t start that well. His first three carries went for -1, 6 and 0 yards, and there were groans.

Then this happened.

His next 12 carries went for 72 yards and featured 23- and 14-yard runs and two we must revisit. The first came toward the end of the first quarter, and this is what the coaches want Shell to do. See it, hit it and chunk up yards. He lines and times this up just right.

There wasn’t a whole lot there, but there was enough for 5 yards and a new set of downs. It’s not an explosive play, but it’s one of those plays he has to make so the offense can keep pushing the opposing defense.

Most memorable, though, was his touchdown. It was Good Shell and … well, Not-So-Good Shell all in one, though not in that order.

This is on third down. It comes after two carries took him from the 7 to the 1. Since he saw this through, we don’t have to ponder the possibilities of a subsequent fourth down. (Aside: Hendy’s the safety on the second level over right tackle Marquis Lucas.)

Good: Eli!
You could make worse picks for offensive player of the game than Elijah Wellman. He was great. On Shell’s touchdown, he flattens a defender and the wreckage does well to keep anyone from stopping Shell. Go all the way back up to the second clip — Hendy cracking Orlosky — and watch Wellman blast another defender. Now watch these two plays and witness different skills managed with aplomb. In the first, he circles the middle linebacker on the second level — might want to, you know, even think about shimmying when Wellman’s barreling at you — and then on the second play goes to the back side in short yardage and wipes out two defenders. I’m going to write about this later in the week, so don’t tell anyone, OK? But WVU’s red zone numbers are much better now, and No. 28 is a common denominator.

Good: Cumulative effect
Wellman has nothing to do with this play, and we’re inclined to celebrate Bolivia deciding to again open its borders, but let’s consider the sum of some of the parts we’ve discussed. WVU was physical. Went at the middle. Succeeded in short-yardage scenarios. This is third-and-goal at the 1, and the Terrapins aren’t crazy to line up like they do and think the Howard will hand it to Smallwood and Smallwood will follow Wellman. Doesn’t happen. We say this a lot, but it’s true: Everything matters. So let’s extend that line of thinking. Howard hit a fade in the red zone. WVU’s red zone arsenal is evolving, and if it was easy for a defense to get off the field without allowing a touchdown before, the same is assuredly not true now. Want to win in Norman? You want Josh Lambert (Aside: You worried?) kicking extra points and not field goals.

Bad: Run defense … I guess? No?
It’s really, really hard to criticize WVU’s defense. I don’t have to tell you why. And when you consider it did a number on Georgia Southern, which is doing a number on everyone else, it’s just as difficult to quibble with the run defense. But is the run a concern three days before the rendezvous with Samaje Perine? Is this group good enough that you can be so picky? The Mountaineers are boat-racing teams … and allow 153.33 rushing yards per game? WVU isn’t getting out-schemed, where the offense goes “Gotcha!” and pockets a big play. Typically, it’s one missed tackle followed by others and/or poor pursuit, and that’s generally the cause of big plays, but they have happened. It could be boredom or indifference or even surprises because, you know, the offense is boat-racing teams, but a few of these have popped, and there were two biggies Saturday. This was the first, but I want you to look at who makes the play and remember where he started.

Good: Everything about this
Here’s the second play, and now you stand and salute Terrell Chestnut because this is as good as it gets. (Side Good: It’s also the perfect illustration of a defense that just doesn’t give up. Seriously, the turnovers have been meaningful — often times in the red zoner end zone — while also fulfilling a preseason prophecy … which makes me believe the big gains on runs are not the product of an occasionally apathetic approach.) But let me ask you: Where did Chestnut start on this play? He and Worley are the cornerbacks on the opposite side of the play. WVU drills this every day. Every day. It’s a pursuit drill, and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson does it differently than others. Without getting in too much detail — I could, if you want — the defensive end, the safety and the outside linebacker on the play side go after the ball and combine to force it outside and/or stop it fast. The nose guard runs up the line of scrimmage toward the sideline and the middle linebacker follows suit. The free safety uses is depth and perception to angle in and close alleys. That’s all supposed to stop the play, but it doesn’t always happen. The defensive end, outside linebacker and safety on the back side of the play have spots to hit on the play side deeper down the field, and the cornerback on the back side has to get back as fast as possible to keep a roof on the play. WVU didn’t stop either of these plays early, but Worley and Chestnut put a lid on it, and it’s just not an easy thing to do given how far away they are and how the offense is looking for them as they try to get across the field.

Bad: Edsall
Not a surprise, but I’m not a fan. Thought the initial fourth down gamble was iffy and put his team on the back foot right away, though I get the intent. But, as was pointed out and then widely agreed upon in TFGD, it was wholly inconsistent to start punting in at-worst similar scenarios when it was clear he was going to be playing catchup. I am sort of proud of him for going for it on fourth-and-goal at the 7 down 38-0 in the third quarter instead of taking a field goal, but I sort of think he wrote a check there, and I’ll explain in a bit. The penalties are indeed a problem — WVU kicked off from the 20 after Lucas’s personal foul on Wellman’s touchdown, and Maryland’s penalty on the return meant the drive started at its 7! — and I don’t have to tell you how that speaks to a coach’s standing and demise, especially if player’s-only meetings are happening under his nose without him knowing. But here’s the rub, all the “He’ll be a great defensive coordinator in the MAC!” jokes aside. There are eight games left in the season. Exactly what about Edsall’s brand (or track record) is supposed to at least compel the fan base to think this is going to change? It sure isn’t the quarterback position, because as bad as Caleb Rowe was Saturday and has been for two weeks, Edsall is starting him Saturday — against Michigan! Not one of the four games has been without discomfort, and it’s only now getting hard. It’s a quirky and brutal schedule, one that alternates home and away the final 10 games. After WVU, it’s the Wolverines, at Ohio State, Penn State, at Iowa, Wisconsin, at Michigan State, Indiana, at Rutgers. Where are the wins? Would you be stunned if this wound up 3-9 or 2-10?

Good: Was it?
Was this a hook-and-lateral? The inside receiver slants and takes two defenders with him and pins the safety on the left to that side. Durante has a ton of room, which by this point of the game WVU could anticipate, and runs an uncharacteristically short route that he also angles inside to open up the sideline. Watch the way Shell bends his route. He’s getting wide first and then gaining steam as he passes Durante. The throw is high, so we’ll never know for sure, but watch Durante when he’s being taken to the ground … is he thinking about a pitch to Shell?

Good: Lots, actually
This is a long clip, and it follows what I guess we can call the necessary evil personal foul against Daikiel Shorts, but part of the fun is watching Holgorsen. He was fired up by the call on Shorts, and I don’t think he thought Lucas held anybody here — and I think he has a point. (Side Good: Lucas. One of his best games, I think.) The play is dead on the whistle, so he doesn’t have to call a timeout, but he does, and he was able to initiate a conversation with the referee. Dana was locked in, man. All game.

Thanks to therealbbbb, who remains indispensable.

But the initial play is peculiar. We saw shallow digs that sweep across the middle, and that’s a really good counter to secondaries playing it safe. But the target here is Dontae Thomas-Williams, who lines up as the fifth wide receiver. Shell picked up some cramps, and JaJuan Seider put the redshirt freshman in the game. It’s one play, but he looked good.

Good: Big little means little big
Help me out: Second play, second drive of the game is a 32-yard pass to Shelton Gibson. I don’t have the video, and I can’t remember the play at all, which is unusual. Was that a long throw (over 20 yards) or was it intermediate with a run after the catch? I ask because without counting the play I have Howard as 1-for-2 for this 41-yard touchdown when he threw the ball 20 or more yards in the air. For the season then, he’s 8-for-13 for 325 yards and three touchdowns on long throws — and Oklahoma’s going to press WVU’s receivers and make it hard to run. (Update: Found it! It qualifies, so add an attempt, a completion and 32 yards to the totals. And this was one of Howard’s best tosses of the day, too. So for the season, that’ 9-for-14 for 354 yards and three touchdowns.)

And while we’re here, Gibson is fast, but how fast is he, Mack?

Good: Package
Tony Gibson’s got a pretty good thing going when it’s third-and-long. He’s making a mass substitution and using Noble Nwachukwu, Darrien Howard and Larry Jefferson on the line, Ed Muldrow and Xavier Preston at linebacker, Chestnut and Worley at corner, Ricky Rumph as basically a nickel who is a pretty effective blitzer, and Dillon, Joseph at Henry at safety. Gibson sat back on the first third-and-long and gave up a long run to Rowe, but he blitzed on just about all the third-and-longs after and suffered no consequences. Maryland started 2-for-2 on third down and finished 4-for-14. (Side Good: Three sacks and a lot of timely pressure that led to tipped passes, terrible throws, worse decisions and consistently good outcomes for WVU. Nwachukwu was salty, and I thought Eric Kinsey gave the line a lot of quality snaps.)

balance

Good: Balance
Look at that. Plays all over the field and all over the depth chart. That’s what Gibson has been building. I know, I know. Maryland. But if you’re not going to do that to Maryland, who are you going to do that to?

Bad: Third quarter
Not the best 15 minutes for the gentlemen in gold. I spent halftime talking to someone about that. The end of the half felt a little like the end of a game, and not just because Josh Lambert (Aside: You worried?) kicked a field goal against Maryland just before the clock hit all zeroes. It was sort of tense. Holgorsen was yelling and gesturing and using timeouts to set up a score. Then it’s 38-0 at the half and, welp, what’s left? Welp, 30 minutes were left, and there was some lethargy in the third quarter. Dillon’s fumble on the kickoff return to start the half was a careless play, and it’s something he’s again probably happy to experience … because he’s the best. But the defense rescued the offense with a quick pick. Howard was chased, hit and even sacked on the next drive, and WVU punted. Then the defense had its worst possession, allowing 24- and 15-yard passes to Rowe and then giving up 15 more yards on Petteway’s personal foul. It’s fourth-and-7 at WVU’s 10 and Maryland goes for it. The offensive line cuts the defensive line and Rowe throws fast, but Worley beats the receiver and picks off the pass. Everyone should be awake now, but the offense doesn’t comply. Howard gets hit on a completion and chased out of the pocket on the third play. A few plays later, he’s flushed out of backfield and has to run and slide. The next play is similar and he has to roll around before completing a pass.

“Skyler, your thoughts?”

And then he’s sacked, and WVU has to punt. This is when the fake punt happens. There are myriad motivations at play. Holgorsen obviously takes pleasure in engaging in rivalries. A fake punt up 38-0 is engagement. There’s probably something to beating Edsall, too, and I suspect going for it on that fourth down was not insignificant. But I also think Dana wanted to get his offense out of the mud, which maybe meant generating a little excitement as well as more snaps. So there’s a fake and a new set of downs. The protection was only barely better, and on third down Howard’s harassed again and has to flick a pass to Smallwood just so he doesn’t get sacked. That was bad, the offense played one more drive and Holgorsen said afterward he had to get Howard out because he was getting hit too often.

Good: Arched brow
I’m not certain Nick O’Toole got the first down, and I’m surprised it wasn’t reviewed, but tip your backwards hat to Joe DeForest. This is a fake all the way. If you’re curious, DeForest said WVU had it in the game plan going in and then had to take advantage so that future opponents wouldn’t sell out to hold up WVU’s coverage team. Maryland does that. Other Big 12 teams do that. It facilitates returns but also creates vulnerabilities. The fake was strategic, if not for that game, then for future ones. Anyhow, he had an idea it might be there for the taking in the game and he called it on the sideline before it happened. It wasn’t an audible or an automatic by O’Toole. It’s the second punt of the game. On the first, the ball is on the same hash and the punt goes to the right side. This is the next punt. The only difference is Maryland has 10 players on the line. On the first punt, there were nine and one player standing up behind those nine. That’s a difference, but it’a subtle one and seemingly the sort of thing that triggers DeForest’s decision to fake. Watch Maryland’s line. Floods to the left side. It’s three full seconds before the coverage realizes it’s a fake, and by then they’re not in position to prevent the first down. The Mountaineers did their homework and passed their test.