WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Oklahoma


If you’re ever curious how I do the things I do — “Wow, how’d he misspell that? It’s t-h-a-t?” or “Man, how’s he watch a game and edit it on his laptop?” for example — here’s a glimpse into the functionality of the Tier 4 studio.

I get a game file from a top secret source who might get in trouble if our arrangement is ever revealed. (I could get it myself, probably, but this way is faster because it’s waiting for me after the game.) Of course, realbbbb remains significant, and other people have lined up to help me with things like quicker downloads with better quality. But whatever the source, the magic begins when the file is opened in Avidemux.

Well, that picture was the first thing I saw when I sat down to watch and cut up the game. I hurried to press play — is 0:00.66 seconds fast, Mack? — and then I just looked at it for a few more seconds.


Now let’s play the blame game. Everybody wants to know, “What does Mikey C. think? Wow, wow, Mike must be real upset.”

I think it’s unfair to paint broad strokes and blame any one person when the game got to where it was late in the third quarter, but I think everybody knows that and understands also that it’s fair to categorize things. That, to me, was a Skyler Howard game. You probably hope it’s The Skyler Howard Game and that its uniqueness stands out at the end of the season. If 10 weeks from now we’re specifying what Skyler Howard game we’re referring to when we explain the record, that’s not good. Look, there were other causes Saturday, and I think Oklahoma was a big one. It can’t be put solely on his shoulders, what with all the other errors committed and allowed by WVU’s offense, defense and special teams, but that potato on his shoulder has company.

Having watched and now re-watched 44-24, my in-the-moment thoughts and initial reactions are roughly the same as they are with the benefit of time and retrospect. Oklahoma had problems Saturday, and WVU was at times a big one, but Oklahoma played a much cleaner game. The Mountaineers were sloppier, and they picked bad times to make messes.

Now, they did prove capable of cleaning up nicely and getting themselves back in the game, but they couldn’t stay away from the mud, and Howard didn’t do what he needed to do to first keep his team out of trouble and then stay out of it. WVU went to Memorial Stadium, where A Contest of Large Import Bob Stoops is now 93-8, and committed five turnovers. Five! Each belonged to Howard. (Aside: WVU believes Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts are to be mentioned in separate interceptions, and I think we can all agree Howard doesn’t block, or not block as it were, for himself.)

Forget where you do it: Five turnovers is just about impossible to overcome. It’s hard to even do it. WVU committed five or more turnovers just six times in the past 10 seasons and lost every one of those games (at USF in 2007, at Auburn in 2009, bowl game against North Carolina State in 2010, against Maryland in Baltimore in 2013, against Texas in 2013 and against TCU last season). But now do it on the road against Oklahoma. Goooooood luck.

The last time WVU committed five turnovers and won? That’d be the win at Syracuse to start the 2005 season. So much for that comparison!

Anyhow, Howard’s first three games were not premonitions. We witnessed and reveled in them. But I don’t think the fourth game was chimera, either. If teams are able to mimic Oklahoma (Oklahoma State can, and the Cowboys will try; they lead the nation in sacks and tackles for loss) and if Howard mimics himself, there can be days like that. Similarly, if Howard sails passes and hangs onto the ball, regardless of the defense, and teammates are cocking their heads and pointing at the ground, there can be games like that, too.

Howard has talent. He showed it off at times — key times, even — against the Sooners. I think experience matters and is not yet a strength, because he hadn’t experienced anything like he did Saturday, and that is part of the picture he finger painted in Norman. Being successful in environments like that requires picking things up when they’re falling down around you. His offensive line did him few favors Saturday, and the Sooners were conspirators, to be sure, but you know what? There are going to be games like that and Howard, now more than ever, understands it.

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

Bad: This is what we’re talking about
It seemed to me Howard and Dana Holgorsen wanted to pass in the middle. WVU didn’t try too many screen passes outside (Aside: Anybody seen the tunnel screen? A traditional screen to a running back?) or take too many chances deep, and I think that was out of an abundance of caution and respect for the Oklahoma cornerbacks. (Side Bad: I doubt Tulsa fostered the same admiration.) But the Sooners also crowded the line of scrimmage and created numerical advantages against the run. So if you’re tight outside and crowded inside, there’s susceptibility at that next level, and maybe that’s why Howard seemed to fix on the middle and why receivers were angling inside early.

Good plan, except that what we’ve seen from Howard so far is that he can be erratic in the middle, and he was again Saturday. This is early, before all the hits and the constant pursuit added up and drained the protection and tested Howard’s patience, and this shouldn’t happen. But the middle is a weird place to be. When you’re looking to the sideline, you’ve clamped off 80 percent or so of the field. There’s not a lot to worry about outside your cone of vision. When you’re looking in the middle, you’re using about a third of it and welcoming surprises from all directions. There are people all over the place, and sometimes you just can’t see everything you need to see because a lot is happening and then changing — and ask Baker Mayfield, an inch taller than Howard, who just didn’t see Karl Joseph standing in front of a receiver when he nabbed his fifth interception.

I don’t think Howard saw Jordan Thomas here, and the Sooners may have fooled WVU at its own game. Thomas is a cornerback. He’s basically playing safety on the near hash. WVU motions its running back outside, and the theory is that Thomas could follow and then open the middle for the throw. But a linebacker fans out with Wendell Smallwood, and Thomas floats back and sneaks into Howard’s window. If Thomas behaves like a corner and steps forward to track Smallwood, Howard’s throw is a good one. The double-clutch suggests Howard saw Thomas, albeit late, and then tried to make an impossible throw, but it’s possible Howard saw two receivers in the same area, which shouldn’t happen, and was made to hesitate for a moment. The smarter play is to look right, throw to Cody Clay after he released off the line and under the pressure, take a medium gain and go back to battle on second down, but that’s easy to say now.

Bad: Arrow down
This one was easy to see as it happened. It’s third-and-12 and WVU has Clay start in the slot, curl outside and then go up the rail. No one covered him. No one.

Howard wasn’t under pressure here. He scanned and came back to Gibson, and that wasn’t a terrible idea.

It’s a bad throw after missing an open receiver. Again, WVU may have been looking for gains in the middle, especially early, and it’s not asking a lot to complete this. Let’s also not allow that Howard can’t make the throw to Clay either…

Good: Sheesh!
That’s a 40-yard throw on a line, and it’s in a huge spot as the foundation crumbles. Jordan Thompson isn’t an easy target to hit from that distance under those conditions, either. I was optimistic Howard would right himself after this, because this isn’t the first time we’ve seen him rifle a ball. He did everything right here.

Bad: Calibration
A little too much powder in the musket, but it was there. A better throw to Devonte Mathis, who’s playing inside and outside, by the way, and he’s got this in his hands with room to run. He’s a harder target to miss. WVU left a few of these on the table early, and we have to wonder what might have been, especially if it was the plan, had Howard been able to connect.

Good: Not a lost cause
This is WVU’s second possession, and, again, it’s proper. Thomas blitzes, Howard sees it — he saw it before the snap, despite no obvious cue from Thomas — and throws into the blitz because it’s open. It’s fast, it’s a first down, it gets WVU out of danger, it’s Good Howard. The throw is a little high, and if you look at the safety and the angle he’d have to take to tackle Gibson, I do wonder if a lower ball a bit more inside lets Gibson catch this, exploit the safety’s angle and fly away, but there’s nothing wrong with this result. If we’re picking on Howard’s placement on passes like this, it’s a much different conversation.

Good: Tenor
Here’s the first play from scrimmage. I liked the intent. Best decision? Well, he had Jovon Durante in a 1-on-1 on the outside. WVU was curious to see how Durante reacted to the atmosphere in his first road game and his first Big 12 game. “Not that he was afraid, but he was wide-eyed, and you expect that,” receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said. This is a fun ice-breaker, though the throw was out of bounds and Durante was well-covered.

Bad: Maybe it’s me?
Here I am thinking WVU had its eyes on the inside, but the offense stretched Oklahoma early on and here’s another deep shot. Howard has a few different and better options here — run it, throw underneath to the tight end, dump it to the running back — but he makes a bold throw up the right side to Durante again, and that might have been the design all along. I think they’d like to have a second chance at this one. It’s not a bad decision. Durante is a step better than Zack Sanchez, who is impossibly just a junior, and there’s no safety. But throwing on the run like that is so hard, and though he got a lot into it — four or so yards too much, in fact — he had time to set and throw and surely put it in a better place.

Bad: Update
I had Howard at 2-for-6 for 54 yards on throws that went 20 yards in the air. One completion was the big throw to Thompson. The other’s the weird play in the third quarter, a 34-yard pass that Durante jumped to catch when he was all alone.

Let’s discuss this. He just made a nice catch in the end zone.

This is a promising development. Howard has that club in his bag, Durante might be the fade guy and WVU again drew the defense inside to open up a throw to the outside. There’s poison to pick if you’re the defense now, and maybe that wasn’t the case before.

WVU recovers a fumble the very next play when Daryl Worley strips Dede Westbrook, who the Mountaineers had a wealth of respect for after the game; he’s a player. (Side Good: I liked him a lot, and I figured it was a matter of time until he got going. He’s faster than WVU expected, and he runs nice routes. People are torch-and-pitchforking Worley, but look at this route. Look at it! It has separate moves, and they’re both effective. The stutter step early gives Westbrook the outside, which has to happen if Mayfield’s going to make this throw, but Worley recovered. Westbrook dead-legs it a tick later and is then shot out of a cannon. It takes Worley, who is good, out of the play. That was … that was something else.)

Howard’s play on first down is the pass up the right side to Durante, and he cuts inside to get past Sanchez, which is unorthodox, and Sanchez falls. Howard flicked the ball to Durante, and Durante, all by himself, again skied to catch it and fell down well short of the end zone. If he stands there and fields the punt, he simply spins around and walks across the goal line. WVU instead had to settle for a field goal on that drive, and it was 24-17 instead of 24-21.

That was big, and there was a lot of blame spread right away. Durante overthought it and did more than he had to do. Howard short-armed the pass and didn’t give Durante a chance. Eh. Maybe. I have to think Durante didn’t know Sanchez fell or thought he didn’t stay down. He also doesn’t know there isn’t a safety nearby, either. If he’s reading the play properly, he knows the safety isn’t close, but what he doesn’t know is how a safety reacts to the sight of Sanchez on the grass. Durante’s watching the ball, remember? If he looks around for defenders, he might not catch it, and then we’re having a different discussion. He high-pointed the ball, which is what he’s taught to do. Howard’s throw was lacking, but he got hit on the play, and if he steps forward to put more into it or waits to throw it, he could get sacked, Sanchez could recover or someone could rally to Durante. It’s not his best throw, but he did a good thing getting rid of it and getting it to his receiver. He has no idea Durante’s going to do what he does.

Good: Gracious
Karl Joseph was not impressed by Westbrook’s route.

Bad: “Oh no, it’s a punt!”
This is the play I couldn’t understand. Watch Durante at the top of the screen, and follow his route and the contact that eventually draws a flag for defensive holding. Watch the official. Nothing. You can see when Howard releases it that no one’s throwing a flag, meaning there’s almost no way he could have known it was a free play. I think the official I told you to watch is the one who throws the flag, but there’s no indication it’s him for as long as we can see him. This was all very weird, up to and including the penalty on Gibson. Sort of a nutshell play, no?

Good: Third quarter
Someone asked me at halftime if I was writing, and I said no. “I don’t think this one’s over.” WVU was great in the third quarter, and I liked Holgorsen’s direction on offense. They found something in the run and exploited it. He was patient and methodical but also aggressive, save one call, I thought. The third down running play that followed the aforementioned pass to Durante seemed inconsistent, though WVU just took a brutal sack and gashed the Sooners on the same run on third down earlier. Maybe it was Howard’s read and decision before the snap there. Not sure. But the calls and the gambles and the execution were good. And be honest: You knew this play was coming, right?

Bad: Sacks
Seven! Well, six. Howard scrambled on one and stepped out of bounds a yard behind the line. That’s technically a sack. But six is still a big, bad number, and everyone’s to blame. The offensive tackles struggled with edge pressure, and Yody Cajuste looked like someone who had only experienced a player like Eric Striker on film, which is entirely accurate. But the interior struggled, too, which is a big reason you didn’t see Howard scrambling out through the pocket. Oklahoma had some success with its defensive tackles, but it was some of the second-wave defenders coming through creases later in the play that did some damage and bothered Howard. WVU’s interior, which did rotate throughout the game, moved and looked around a lot, and that had them losing sight or control of their targets, who then got pressure. Overall, not a good day for pass protection. Even Eli Wellman was prone to a mistake.

There are a handful of plays you might call the play of the game, and each of the ones that follows were big and involved a sack, but this first one was enormous.

Poor Wellman. He’s going outside, but it doesn’t seem he’s wide enough. He has to adjust and open up to get Striker, but Striker’s stopping and going, and it complicates where and how Wellman targets. Seriously, it looks like Striker lassoed Wellman and pulled him his way. Wellman’s off balance and then on the ground, and Striker savagely goes for the ball. This play looked horrible in slow motion, but in real time it’s a complete mismatch of ability and circumstance. It happened fast, too. Howard has to wait on the route and wind up, and that seems problematic, but the time from the ball finding his hands to Striker finding his target is 2.54 seconds.

Here’s a play I think Holgorsen was referencing when he mentioned getting too aggressive. It’s third-and-3. The Sooners have been getting better pressure. Howard isn’t looking good. But mostly, it’s third-and-3 near the goal line. You’ve been running well, even on third down. But that questionable running play on third-and-goal just happened, and I wonder if Holgorsen was spooked and wanted points on this drive he didn’t get the previous drive. So he rolls the dice and pays the price, even though the Sooners send five and WVU has six. Adam Pankey, who played a lot of left tackle, can’t wall off Devante Bond. Marquis Lucas ends up building a teepee. Howard’s way too lax with the ball under that sort of pressure. Everything goes bad and gets worse. Howard had 3.7 seconds to work with here, though.

Live, this one looked like it was on Howard, too. WVU used a lot of motion to diagnose Oklahoma’s defense. Mathis motions left here, and no one follows. So, zone? Sanchez stays in his spot and blitzes. He’s got a long run to make it to Howard, but he gets that time. It’s a two-man route. Shorts draws two defenders and Mathis one. There’s nothing except the goal posts, and Howard should have split them here, and he might have if he had more than 2.71 seconds. This was a demoralizer, but had to be a bit of a surprise, too. Sanchez doesn’t come around a corner. The outside linebacker gets a step wider just before the snap. Clay handles him, but it creates a gap and a shorter path for Sanchez. The strange run play and field goal followed this.

This is when it became clear it wasn’t WVU’s day. Just couldn’t catch a break. Cajuste can’t handle the edge. Pankey doesn’t see the linebacker. Howard is more or less conditioned to expect certain things now and just doesn’t look comfortable. This one takes 4.14 seconds. He’s moving around and that takes up time, but Holgorsen needs and wants Howard to act quicker. I think that’d be the teaching point even if this play did count. On the three other inbounds sacks, the time was 2.8, 3.7 and 3.4 seconds. (Aside: Smallwood cuts outside instead of up the middle at the end and he’s dancing in the end zone.)

Good: Running game
It’s nice! Smallwood has back-to-back 100-yard games. He only ever had two before this. He’s looked dynamic in both. Rushel Shell is a worthy complement with 77 and 72 yards the past two games and a visibly improved understanding of what to do, what to take and what to search for. WVU ran for 196 yards. Howard’s sacks cost the running game 46 yards. So on 47 runs, WVU had 242 yards rushing against a defense that hadn’t allowed 200 since the final game of the 2013 regular season. It’s what got the Mountaineers back into the game, and yet on the third-and-3 when Howard fumbled near his end zone and the above second-and-1 play, they were passing. Instead of a 30-yard gain here, it’s a 13-yard loss. Howard completes a 15-yard pass on third-and-14, but Lucas commits a holding penalty on the next play to set up third-and-24. Nick O’Toole’s punt goes 26 yards — it still wasn’t as bad as the 37-yarder that went into the stands — yet WVU is off the field when Mayfield scrambles on third-and-16 … but he’s tackled by the facemask and Xavier Preston.

Bad: Special teams
Holgorsen called it a wash, and I agree the coverage teams did a nice job, but he also acquitted K.J. Dillon and Gary Jennings for their successive decisions to field punts inside their 5-yard line and didn’t make mention of the two penalties on kickoff returns. Field position was a factor early. Now, with regard to Dillon and Jennings, those were long punts, and both lost track of where they were. That’ll happen, but it’s not unruly to ask them to keep track of the 10 and never let their toes breach it. O’Toole’s two punts were accompanied by a kickoff out of bounds (Aside: Left!) and then a sound job in relief by Mike Molina. In all, it was shakier than it had been against the best special teams the Mountaineers have seen. It’s not the best WVU will see, though

While we’re here, here’s Dillon’s bad decision.

From the punter’s foot to Dillon, it travels 72 yards. That’s a bomb. I can accept that Dillon got lost, and he’s not putting his eyes down with the ball in the air and people gunning at him. But bring it back and watch WVU’s No. 10, third from the left on the line of scrimmage. That’s Khairi Sharif. He’s supposed to get Striker, which is apparently impossible to do. Striker wins at the snap and gets a free release. Guess who tackles Dillon. Freeze it at 0:14. Everyone in crimson is blocked except Striker. Imagine that Striker isn’t right there and that Sharif blocked or slowed him. Dillon’s going through that left side and he’s running for a while.

WVU had really bad luck Saturday. Isn’t that right, Rushel Shell?

Shell ultimately scored on this drive, but he might have on this play, or gotten darned close. What on Earth happened?


Poor Wellman.

Good: Defensive line
I thought they held up really well. Oklahoma’s offense is, for now, playing in spite of its offensive line, which isn’t an insult as much as it is a compliment for good results while doing something new with pieces not yet up to speed. That’s mostly a description of the line, which has new players and is doing more zone blocking than what we’re used to. WVU’s defensive line affected Mayfield and did a nice job against the run. (Side Good: Great run defense, with one exception and one player getting gobbled up when he knew better. It looked to me like the Sooners wanted to use Samaje Perine as a closer and realized it wasn’t going to work against WVU’s front.) This play gets away from Noble Nwachukwu, and Mayfield, who’s a pretty good player and will have a chance to do silly stuff the next two years, makes a fine play with Westbrook. More skill than luck, but there’s some luck involved here.

Good: Brady Quinn!
Make all the makeup jokes you want: He was on it, wasn’t he? This is also my way of not committing to a good or a bad for the defense as we close here. You can’t take away the big plays, because they happened, but WVU had a lot of success against what’s a pretty effective offense. But it wasn’t a clean performance, and the mistakes were fatal. Here are two plays for a couple reasons:

  • A reminder Oklahoma had an idea to pick on the safeties and eventually stopped
  • An illustration about how blitzes do and do not work and how Mayfield did well handing pressure
  • A point that has to be made about WVU’s blitzes not getting home, which caused trouble
  • Quinn’s commentary

Watch Mark Andrews on the second play. He splits the linebackers, and for some reason Dravon Askew-Henry slides down the fire pole to be at that depth, too. It’s hard to sit here and say what went wrong, and I’ll show you why that’s dangerous in a minute. Still, we’re likely safe to assume this was Cover 3, because that’s what Tony Gibson likes most. He loathes quarters coverage. “Cover Zero without pressure,” he says. He just won’t use it. So this is not that. WVU has about a dozen different ways to get to Cover 3, and sometimes the cornerbacks are the deep three. This doesn’t look like that, though if it is, no one’s in the deep middle. If the three safeties are the three deep players, Askew-Henry was outside his area. Regardless, something went wrong here, and we have to keep an eye on future opponents and double moves.

Good: This route, man
Again? Watch Sterling Shepard’s route. I mean, what’s Terrell Chestnut supposed to do?

Chestnut looked at fault when Sterling Shepard used a double move to leave Chestnut behind on a 28-yard touchdown pass, but WVU receivers coach Lonnie Galloway told Chestnut later that Deion Sanders wouldn’t have been able to defend Shepard’s route.

“It was a great play,” Galloway said. “The kid ran a great route. It’s just one of those things.”

The Mountaineers blitzed on third-and-5 and Shepard angled inside. Chestnut stepped forward to defend a quick pass, because quarterbacks tend to act fast when they see a blitz, but Oklahoma actually ordered Shepard to cut back outside to get behind Chestnut.

“I’ve never seen a guy run a route like that — never — at full speed and not tear an ACL or break an ankle,” WVU cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell said.

Obviously, the Mountaineers did not expect this, but why would they? They’re sending seven and putting everyone else on an the island. It’s true Cover Zero. Mayfield is not supposed to hang onto the ball and wait for a double move to develop. He’s supposed to look for a hot route, which is a quick throw to the first-down line. (Aside: If Shepard does what’s expected and slants inside and stays there, there’s still a home run option on the wheel route, but that’s a difficult throw.) But he does hold it and Shepard runs the quick slant, but it’s merely the first part of an exquisite route against a very sound corner. Mayfield does get hit … after 1.6 seconds. WVU got beat here.

Bad: Got beat here, too
I think it’s important to relive this whole sequence and watch the end of it to understand everything. The Sooners start at their 5 after a penalty. You can’t forgive the Mountaineers for being on the back foot here, but they have all the momentum and they can expect Oklahoma to be careful.

The Sooners were the opposite of careful. They were purposefully reckless, and it worked.

The first play is a pass that gains 12 yards. The Sooners hurry to the next play, and you can tell WVU is alarmed bordering on uncertain. Perine gains 12. Oklahoma hits the gas again, and now WVU is spinning. The time between the whistle at the end of Perine’s run and the next snap is 18 seconds, and that includes the officials stepping in to re-spot the ball. You can see WVU isn’t prepared. Worley is trying to get the call. Gibson said afterward this is Cover 3 and one man didn’t get it. The instinctive blame is aimed at Dillon, because he’s a safety. Nope. It’s Worley. He doesn’t know the call is Cover 3 with him, Henry and Chestnut playing deep. Watch Nick Kwiatkoski and Dillon, who are to Worley’s left. They have the screen. Watch Jared Barber. He’s got the area where the inside receiver crosses. Worley’s supposed to keep a lid on a deep throw. That’s what tempo, and in particular jumping into tempo, does. The Mountaineers like to pressure with their defense. They came undone when pressure was put on the defense.