I’m not sure I buy home-field advantages much these days. Maybe that’s just me covering WVU, which is 5-10 in Big 12 home games with four overtime losses. I mean, Oklahoma State chose to go into the hostile section of the stands in overtime Saturday and then won the game. But around the country it just seems to mean less and less, and nights like Saturday, when I think you’d have a hard time saying the Cowboys were the clearly superior team and when the Mountaineers were perplexed about why they didn’t start the game with greater verve, may as well prove it.
Whatever the truth, the reality here is that it doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying this to tease or offend the great people who go to great lengths to fill the stands and try their hardest to impact the game. I’m saying this because WVU isn’t winning games that, when put together, make a huge difference.
Three years ago, the Mountaineers led TCU 27-17 with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter and lost when the Horned Frogs went for two and won the game in the second overtime. A season later, Texas scored first in overtime and WVU couldn’t answer. In the finale, WVU was up 38-21 on Iowa State in the fourth quarter and lost in three overtimes. Saturday’s game — at home, at night, where and when Dana Holgorsen is now just 3-8 — is new to the list. Add two more one-point losses in regulation (Oklahoma in 2012, TCU last season) when WVU couldn’t stand up one last time on a fourth-down touchdown pass by the Sooners and then sprung a leak in the secondary to facilitate TCU’s game-winning drive, and you do wonder.
Like, what if WVU won some or all of those games? How different would things feel?
But Saturday was sort of cool, too. The crowd was come-and-go, for which it is not to be blamed, and was on the verge of making a quarterback change when it switched from groans and boos aimed at Skyler Howard to audible “We want Crest! We Want Crest!” chants as Howard was scooping himself up off the turf after his fumble and Oklahoma State’s recovery for the game’s first score. By the time Howard lost his helmet and tagged in William Crest to uncomfortable applause, I thought we might see a change at halftime. We didn’t, and I might have an explanation below, but the crowd was nevertheless there the rest of the way, and like it or not, 7NA has a place for the people.
The flashlight scene was tremendously tremendous, though. I don’t know where it came from, and WVU people I quizzed were excitedly clueless. Just an organic thing that looked great in person and on TV. (Aside: Somewhat familiar, but I’ve always likened WVU crowds to WWE crowds, and if this means Broken Out in Love becomes WVU’s Jump Around, so be it.) Who knows when we’ll see it again, because I’m not sure there’s another home night game on the schedule in 2015, but it was so Good on a night there weren’t many others.
How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Oklahoma State.
The 2005 comparison is probably dead now, so maybe it’s time to take a look at another season. How about 2010? Kind of discomforting, no? You’ll recall there was a distinct Offense v. Defense split that season, and though I don’t know that this is headed that way and I think it’s convenient for people to create that dynamic, I also think some of the comments after the game were interesting. I understand the context of Holgorsen saying the defense wasn’t quite good enough, because Oklahoma State, of all teams, ran on every play in overtime and scored a touchdown on fourth-and-1. WVU’s defense, as currently constituted with talent, experience and hype, some of its own doing, is supposed to win right there. And I can understand some on the defensive side going, “Huh?” when that assessment found their ears. Status quo doesn’t exist, so I could see this worsening if it doesn’t improve, which means it could go away just as easily if things (on offense) do improve. But I do want to be clear on this: WVU’s defense was fine Saturday. The offense was quick to point that out, too. Now, how it would fare without Karl Joseph was worth watching, but there wasn’t an Uhoh Stretch in there at all. This play, when WVU was down because Oklahoma State’s defense scored, is when I’d bet Tony Gibson exhaled, settled in and thought, “We’re good. Let’s go.” Just watch it. They’re changing the play and communicating everything. They track the motion. They disguise their drop into coverage. They don’t bite on a pump fake. Shaq Petteway sees his opening to go get the quarterback without compromising the play. All that’s left is a checkdown, and K.J. Dillon, who might as well have been wearing No. 8, cuts the play in half. Procede.
This was a key play in the game, because Oklahoma State had a hammer in the hand and eyes on the coffin. The Cowboys, very good in the red zone, are supposed to score a touchdown here. There are two possibilities, and I’m willing to consider either. For sure, it’s an unbalanced line with the right tackle on the left side and a tight end playing right tackle. WVU probably expects a run left, and J.W. Walsh (Aside: Told you!) is quick to keep the ball and run right. The tight end has opened an alley on the short side. I suspect that’s the design. But it’s also possible there’s an option for a pass play here. The tight end can run routes, but Petteway isn’t fooled by the faux right tackle. The Cowboys could very well want Petteway to let the tight end pass by and chase Walsh, thereby creating an easy touchdown pass. This was quick thinking by everyone in a small space.
Good: Double moves
The Mountaineers were expecting them, in part because Oklahoma State trusts Mason Rudolph’s arm and the outside receivers, but also because WVU looked so shaky against them the week before.
“We’re going to continue to see those types of things — screen-and-gos and double moves and all that — just because of the way we attack people and because we’re as aggressive as we are,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said.
The Cowboys weren’t nearly as successful — there’s a good Joe DeForest quote in there that you ought to read — and Terrell Chestnut swims by the bait here. You can be relatively sure that Rudolph made the decision to throw this pass based on the theory WVU was beaten on double moves last week. Lessons learned, both by WVU and the opposition, right? (Side Bad: Fades. Daryl Worley got beat a few times. Chestnut was called, wrongly I thought, for pass interference. WVU expected Worley but also Chesnut to be targeted a few times, too. It happened. It happens. Worley could have played the ball better on at least one, but on another, you just have to accept that Rudolph and Marcell Ateman won the down. Going forward, there’s no way to avoid teams taking chances, especially when WVU plays with one safety or no safeties as often as it does. The only way to prevent damage is to play corner a little better and trust quarterbacks and receivers won’t execute quite as well. That’s a terrible explanation, I know, and it’s a lot to ask, because defending fades cleanly is not easy and you have no control over the other team’s execution. A back-shoulder throw is extremely difficult to stop, even and maybe especially if the cornerback does everything required of man coverage properly.)
Good: Defensive line
I was going to make this about the run defense, which was stout once again. Oklahoma State struggles to run the ball with new offensive linemen and running backs and a first-year offensive line coach, but you could watch any one of a number of plays and see WVU gap and fit everything right. The linebackers hit their holes, and the safeties contained the edges. It was as they practiced, and a lot of it had to do with the defensive line. They facilitate so many things against the run, but they were making plays throughout the game, too.
It seems Darrien Howard is happening. He’s in a role behind Kyle Rose, which is fine, but he’s good. And so it Rose. This play was about to break at least to the second level, though Dillon was there to clean it up, but Howard comes from out of the play to actually make the play. Chris Carson is a player, and he’s 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds. He’s downhill here and Howard pulls him back up the hill. The defensive line had both of the team’s tackles for a loss, two points and 12 of the team’s 66 tackles. Defense is a lot easier when the first three in the 3-3-5 are productive on top of helpful. True, they didn’t do their best work in overtime — the Cowboys changed their blocking scheme, if that means anything to you — but maybe it shouldn’t have gotten there. The line was disruptive on Oklahoma State’s final possession in regulation and with no help from the linebackers and safeties. Gibson geared his defense to cover the pass plays, and the defensive line did a really nice job flustering Rudolph.
Good: Kyle Rose
Remember Erik Slaughter’s push-pull drill? Rose aces it here. He 1-on-1 with the center and just riddles him. He’s got him reeling backward and then falling forward, and that opens the door for Rose … who bat flips his safety. He isn’t 1-on-1 too often in a game, so kudos to him for seeing an opportunity and going after it. So good.
And so was his cameo on the punt return team.
WVU didn’t entirely trust that the Cowboys would punt, so the defense stayed on the field. Rose then blew up 6-foot-2, 250-pound Jeremy Seaton in the shield. Might as well, right?
Bad: That said …
This did happen. Oklahoma State finished with 134 yard rushing, and he’s a chunk of 40 that stung. It’s third-and-10, WVU sends five and Rudolph extends a drive that concludes in the end zone. WVU’s in man-to-man behind it and most of the action starts on the left and heads to the right side. Rudolph does a very good job seeing he’s not contained and getting out the left side, and before you get on Worley for being blocked for the entirety of this, understand that is, in essence, his job. He’s supposed to backpedal and offer a last line of defense while backup arrives. That’s the pursuit drill we lauded after the Maryland game.
Bad: The other shoe
This is the end of the drive, and WVU has it at third-and-goal once again. This was a theme throughout the night. WVU shouldn’t be fooled by the diamond, but the “fullback” slips out unencumbered. The motion by the running back suggests this is a run, either by him or Walsh, and the playaction sucks the linebackers in, which is something Gibson is getting tired of seeing used against him. A deft throw and a nice catch get the Cowboys a big punch-back touchdown. (Side Bad: No clue what Dravon Askew-Henry is doing except taking Harper out of the play. The reactions of Worley and Harper suggest something went wrong here.)
Bad: Tight ends
Blake Jarwin caught that one. He’s a tight end. Oklahoma’s tight end scored the week before. Baylor has two monsters, one large and one extraordinarily large. Teams pick up on these things, and check out how McGowan scored last week.
Look familiar? The Cowboys picked their spots and found good gains with tight ends. The pop pass plays were problems for the Mountaineers, and Harper, who was otherwise solid, had a hard time with these two plays. It’s such a clever idea, though. It’s designed to put defenders in conflict, and it succeeded. Harper’s job is to play against the run on the edge or chase it down on the other side. If it’s a pass, he’s to widen out to defend against a pass out wide. Oklahoma State found a way to knife into open space.
Bad: What WVU wanted
Whether they play or coach offense or defense, the Mountaineers wanted Oklahoma State to face a fourth-and-1 in overtime. I mean, fourth-and-25 would be better for them, but you get the idea. One stop, win the game. WVU knew this was coming, too. Almost everything works. Almost. Here’s Gibson’s explanation. Whatever goes wrong, it very nearly goes right for WVU. Jared Barber is right there to end this, except Paul Lewis (57) sweeps across and Walsh just does a good job stepping out of trouble. That’s why he’s a weapon down there. (Aside: Have I ever told you that I want the ball first in overtime?)
A lot to review and to consider here. Let’s begin with the obvious. He finally played in the first three quarters of a game and in a situation that didn’t involve Howard losing his helmet. You need to play football if you’re going to play football, and we’re guilty of only being fair if we wonder if Holgorsen was thinking about getting Crest acclimated for something bigger. He has a feel for strength, size and speed that he didn’t have before. He got whacked, and he was helped from field. He checked a lot of things off the list. That’s all good. But let’s be honest, too. He didn’t look great (and he didn’t have much help) and it doesn’t sound like he’s even near ready to take over at quarterback.
“He’s a redshirt freshman,” Holgorsen said. “He’s taking reps, but he needs to continue to understand what I’m wanting him to do with the ball, where I want him to put his eyes and making appropriate checks in the run game.”
This was The Chance. WVU’s got the ball after Kwiatkoski’s interception. (Side Good: That’s Kwitatkoski’s second help-defense turnover of the season. He recovered the fumble Worley caused on the sideline down the field against Oklahoma, and he had no real business being in the vicinity of his interception except for his helpful habit of sticking his nose in the business of others.) It’s a quick change and the ball is between the 40s, which is prime real estate for trick plays. But this time it’s the Cowboys who don’t take the bait. Jovon Durante is covered, but never mind the questionable decision to throw; debate that and also possible pass interference all you want. It almost never gets here because Crest just can’t keep his feet. But, hey, that’s on film now, and it might give Crest room on the second level for future runs.
I mention that because he could use some help from his friends.
Find Wendell Smallwood in the backfield and pause it at :05. Smallwood needs to find No. 31 and not worry about No. 45, right? The former is a threat to Crest. The latter is not. Crest had a chance here if No. 31 is blocked. Instead, nobody is blocked, Smallwood lost a fumble a few plays later and Holgorsen did this.
Same deal here. Watch Rushel Shell miss a cut block, and watch Crest lose the play when he has to deal with that defender. It’s like nobody was excited to see him in the game!
That said, Crest’s presence really matters. Teams know he’s a quarterback, and he did throw a pass. He gained 6, 5 and 4 yards on his runs without much help. He ran a wheel route up the rail and drew pass interference. He was open on some other plays Howard either didn’t see or couldn’t execute. He’s clearly one of WVU’s most able and most trusted skill talents right now. Defenses have to pay heed, and watch the Cowboys react to Crest (in motion) here (pause it at :02). There are a lot of eyes on Crest. A guy ends up at his feet because he’s trying so hard to get to Crest and pays no mind to a cut block, likely because he was warned on the sideline about Crest and was made to worry because the Cowboys could not have prepared for all of that in practice. Anyhow, with attention and resources diverted, Shell had space, but Howard … actually, I don’t know what to call that. That whole play was weird.
Holgorsen called his wide receivers soft not long ago. Durante and Shelton Gibson are not experienced or confident blockers. Jordan Thompson is, and he’s more than willing, but he’s also not terribly big. WVU’s inside runs are better than their outside runs, and a likely explanation is WVU’s perimeter blocking isn’t Good. Opponents know this, too. Watch linebacker Jordan Burton simply eschew Thompson.
Bad: Special teams
The coverage teams are fine. Nick O’Toole was better. Josh Lambert is himself. But the return teams, man. Kickoff return is No. 75 nationally and punt return is No. 94. (Football Outsiders will publish its first bank of field position stats after this week’s games, and you have to think WVU’s average start will be terrible, even with the turnovers its defense has caused.) They’ve got to positively impact a game soon here. The offense needs a boost, and repeated penalties on kick returns and an increasing number of adventures on punt returns do not help. All that said, Durante looks like a keeper on kickoff returns. He should have a talk with Justin Arndt.
It’s that time. People are throwing dirt on Howard, and he made some critical errors and was fortunate to avoid a few others throughout the first half. But he was sharp and confident — that’s vital, because it’s been missing — in the third quarter and actually most of the second half. A theory for you:
- Holgorsen gave Howard one drive in the third quarter to get things going.
I don’t think it’s crazy, if only as a way to wake up the quarterback. WVU played fast on that first drive in the third quarter, and Howard is visibly more comfortable when WVU hurries and he’s working with advantages and not working with his disadvantages. But consider the consequence of this scenario…
… and ask yourself, “What if Howard’s pass is too high and a play he should make is instead left on the field?” Hook? Maybe. But WVU converts on fourth down and hurries again, and the Cowboys are a mess — and I mean 19-players-on-the-field messy. Nobody covers Gibson at the bottom of the screen. No. Body. It would seem Howard doesn’t see it, if only because he didn’t throw the easiest touchdown pass ever, but it’s also possible he’s preoccupied with knowing Oklahoma State is all screwed up and has too many people on the field and not enough people on the left. Just hurry up and hand Smallwood the ball, right? It worked out for them.
But Holgorsen is increasingly critical of Howard getting in a rush too often, of not seeing the things he needs to see. (He’s also consistently complimentary of Howard’s decisions in the run game, which can’t be ignored here.) If WVU ends up with a field goal — or, hell, a turnover — here because he didn’t see or didn’t capitalize on Gibson being left uncovered, does he get the hook?
Let’s be fair to Howard, too, even as the volume rises against him. He didn’t get all the help he needed, and this, we are often reminded, is a team sport. The pass protection was better, but he was still rattled. The running backs and receivers didn’t block well. Receivers didn’t run sharp or aggressive routes to get open against man coverage, and Holgorsen is waiting on the timing to click between them and Howard. If you look closely at many of Howard’s scrambles or questionable throws, you’ll see he doesn’t have options or safe alternatives to pursue. Guys are ending plays before he does, and, sure, he could unload the ball quicker, but sometimes he needs to extend and get help.
But let’s not dismiss Howard’s role in the struggles, either. He hasn’t been accurate and his deep balls are just not connecting now.
This one hit, and you leaned forward and thought for a moment this ploy was there for the taking for the final 20 minutes. The play calls were opening up the defense, and after a few attempts, Howard finally got one to work. Now the Cowboys have to guard against that, and that’s precisely where WVU wants to find defenses. He ended up with that one hit. On throws when the ball traveled 20 or more yards, he was 1-for-7 for 48 yards and a pass interference on the throw to Crest.
Bad: All of this
I don’t pay much attention to the broadcast because I’m skipping through the time between plays, but I was made to pay attention here because those guys were killing Howard. When’s the last time you heard a commentator call a play — or was it the performance? — a disaster? That was uncomfortable almost. But the point remains here: A quarterback just cannot throw that pass. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not enough to say he wasn’t doing that in his first seven games/five starts. He wouldn’t do it. That’s the part that’s concerning. It’s the worst decision I’ve seen him make and, if we’re being honest, the turnover likely cost WVU the game. What?
Bad: Sad sack
Don’t forget, WVU’s defense got an interception and then forced three straight punts before that interception and then held Oklahoma State to a field goal after it. Try to convince me or your spouse or your barista the Cowboys were going the length of the field and getting points. They weren’t. But they got a short field, couldn’t move and kicked a field goal after that interception. After the four straight stops, WVU’s offense managed one field goal … one that was negated by the interception. Tony Gibson said his defense’s biggest moment was getting the stop after Howard’s touchdown run and giving the offense the ball with 58 seconds and three timeouts remaining. A completion to Durante gave WVU a first down at its 33 with 25 seconds to go and Holgorsen called a timeout (Aside: That was the third play of the drive. The second picked up a first down. No timeout followed. WVU had somehow used 33 seconds. I was … curious.) Howard then takes this sack, when, again, he doesn’t have much to work with, but he could have hit the Zul’s guy in the fifth row. That specifically gave us overtime.
For a few reasons, maybe it never needed to get here. A better drive at the end of regulation gives Lambert a chance. Before that, more productivity from the offense after the stops or more caution from Howard instead of a goal line fumble or the bad interception might take overtime out of the equation. And the defense could have won on fourth-and-1, which is the sort of thing this defense would tell you it prides itself on doing. But overtime was the outcome and WVU was forced to answer a touchdown. It all went wrong right here. Right guard Kyle Bosch gives up some ground, and his guy compromises everything. Cody Clay sees it and helps … and Eli Wellman does, too. Question mark? Running backs coach JaJuan Seider tipped his cap to the Cowboys, saying their side beat his side and that his guy needed to do better damage control. “I wish he’d have stayed in there and tried not to lose 4 or 5 yards or whatever and just lose 2.” (Side Good: Oklahoma State’s defensive line: Better than Oklahoma’s and maybe the best in the league? For a night, it sure looked like it. Remember WVU’s defensive line stats? Oklahoma State’s starters finished with 27 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Emmanuel Ogbah is a pro, probably after this junior season he’s putting together, but I’ll be stunned if the other defensive end, senior Jimmy Bean, and sophomore defensive tackle Vincent Taylor aren’t, too. I knew Ogbah and Bean were good, but Taylor, whoo. He was tough.) The thing is, if Clay or Wellman gets outside, Shell has a chance to find a crease. If Bosch holds up and Clay and Wellman get outside, a simple outside zone play works. It’s unlikely Burton gets through those two and makes this play for a huge loss that necessitated the final play of the game. (Aside: Was Thompson open in the back of the end zone on that play? Don’t answer that!)
Bad: Oh well
Again, maybe that play on third down or the one that followed isn’t necessary, much like maybe overtime wasn’t necessary. Hard to say. But before you watch this clip, rewind to last week’s G&B and a have a look at the tone set by one of Howard’s throws. Formulaic play: Playaction, quick roll, eyes up the field, flick of the arm. Now watch this play. Daikiel Shorts is steps past his cornerback and the safety is too close to do anything about it.