WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Baylor

This all feels very weird today. I’m a day behind. I’ve got basketball in my head. And I honestly can’t give you a whole lot that distinguishes itself from many other things you saw, heard or read to explain the loss or to add to that which you believe or were made to believe after the loss.

And I sort of warned you in TFGD, albeit in jest, that a bunch of what I’d say here could boil down to “That’s Baylor!” Granted, that’s not a very good explanation, and I think in Year 4 of the Big 12 experience and a season after beating the Bears, that ought not apply or be applied quite so frequently. I also think there were occasions West Virginia had to and could have been better — Shelton Gibson dropping a certain touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, for example — and the justifications for why the Mountaineers were not simply do not cut it. So I’ll try not to bow to the Bears, but there will be things I can’t resist because this is G&B and there were some bad men doing Good things Saturday. It made West Virginia look Bad, but there were some instances in which I thought the Mountaineers could do very little about that.

I mean, that trips formation with the bunch to the short side of the field and a 1-on-1 on the wide side? Good luck. I really don’t know how you defend that unless, as Tony Gibson proposed, you’re allowed to use 14 players.

But here’s my lede today: Baylor’s playing fast break football. The offense is just nuts. It’s frenetic and efficient all at once. The space is potent and the players make it lethal. Players are hitting all their marks in multiple aspects. I’ve just never seen an offense affect the other offense quite like this. Baylor’s played this offense before, but Baylor’s never played offense like this before. I hope that makes sense. Watch this in the future: Offensive players on the other team perform with a pending doom resting atop their shoulder pads. I don’t care what those players say. It’s true. You know every incomplete pass, every negative-yardage run, every time you leave yardage to go for a first down, every field goal is potentially damning. That’s certainly not reality, but it does feel real.

What I hadn’t really paid much attention to is that Baylor’s defense is in a hurry to put the offense back on the field. The Bears are aggressive. They blitz a lot. They hit you. They swarm. (They look a lot like WVU looked against Baylor last season, I thought.) They’re trying to force errors or punts, and if they get beat in the form of a touchdown or a long gain that precedes a touchdown, fine, just let Seth Russell & Co. handle that.

The whole experience is a bit frightening. You know it going in, and when you start to feel it, that can be very hard to manage.

I said this in the chat last Thursday, but I suspected the game might get away from WVU in the first half. The Mountaineers were enduring slow starts. Skyler Howard’s first halves were costly. If there were some punts or stumbles or field goals, they could pay with quick Baylor strikes. That did not happen, and I thought Dana Holgorsen, the offense and the defense were pretty good in the first half.

But that game was over at halftime.

Baylor created a few openings. There were dropped passes. There was an early fourth down attempt. There were two punts. WVU hit some big plays (against a passive defense) and drove to the red zone. But the results? WVU gave up a first down on the fourth down and then a touchdown a play later. After the two punts, the Mountaineers managed three points, and that was on one of the red zone possessions. Those three points were negated by a WVU punt and a Baylor field goal. Another red zone possession ended with a missed field goal, and a healthy Wendell Smallwood probably scores on that 52-yard run, and that takes the specter of a field goal out of the equation.

The Mountaineers had 17 points at halftime, which is a pretty good half for them lately, and they were down 10. Not only that, but they knew they had their chances and gave them away with punts, missed and made field goals and an interception in the end zone. They had some looks and looked the other way. The first drive of the second half then became enormously important. WVU punted, Baylor put on a hellacious stretch with 28 points in 24 plays, and that was that.

The Bears are not perfect, but they cover for a lot because opponents know they’re so damn close.

So there’s my conclusion. How did we get here? Let’s find out, by taking a look at the God and the Bad of WVU v. Baylor.

My apologies in advance.

Let’s start with the beginning of the end. The Mountaineers are doing all right. It’s 24-14 and you’re still at a point in the game (season?) where you have to believe the defense is going to make sense of it all. Corey Coleman’s doing things, and the Bears seems oddly disinterested in letting him set NCAA records for catches, yards, touchdowns, etc. They’re running, and WVU is handling that. Sooner or later, someone’s going to solve Coleman, right? Meantime, the Mountaineers swallow some Shock Linwood runs, and Baylor punts. David Sills, Ka’Raun White and Cody Clay have already made plays, and on this drive Dontae Thomas-Williams joins the party. This is all very Good for WVU and its verve. It’s kin to the basketball version of subbing the five starters for five bench players and watching the bench players go on a run.

But DTW loses 2 yards, and it’s second-and-12 and, uh oh, here comes that immense pressure. Second-and-12 is the sort of thing that precedes a punt. You can’t follow a punt with a punt. Not in that stadium against that team.


Splendid, and this play is there more often than you think or than the stat sheet suggests. Sometimes Howard doesn’t see it or doesn’t trigger it and sometimes the throw isn’t what it should be. But Howard, if nothing else, seems confident in the deep ball again. First-and-goal at the 3. The 3!

Then everything changes.

Bad: Oh, Wellman
I’m not sure what’s happened to him. He hasn’t been himself since the Oklahoma game, and maybe the competition is the common denominator. Anyhow, this play has a chance. It’s a zone play. Adam Pankey (left tackle) and Tony Matteo (left guard) do enough to keep Andrew Billings at bay. The right side does it’s job and gets a good push. Center Tyler Orlosky climbs to the second level and takes out the middle linebacker. DTW is maybe in if Wellman finds the other linebacker, Taylor Young, and doesn’t double-team a guy already on the ground in the end zone, right?

No worries. Two more downs.

It’s a lot to ask Clay to handle Shawn Oakman, who, it should be noted, played his best game of the season. Not coincidentally, Baylor’s defensive line looked better than it had all season. (Side Good: Those guys. Sheesh. Oakman is a monster, but I think the way Billings plays makes Oakman look like Mike Wazowski. Beau Blackshear is beyond serviceable as an accomplice at tackle, and I’d never seen that other defensive end, Jamal Palmer, be so disruptive. That’s three straight dynamite defensive lines WVU has seen. Still think Oklahoma State’s is better, but Baylor’s was very good.) It’s too much to ask Clay to handle Oakman when Clay is getting double teamed by his fullback climbing up his back. I have no idea what happens here or why. It looks so wrong. The friendly fire seems to spring Oakman, but even if Clay isn’t compromised and Wellman angles outside and helps wall off the edge, what’s Wendell Smallwood doing? This is a play that had a chance but never had a chance, and this is a reminder WVU’s skill position blocking is a major bummer.

But, hey, no worries. One more down. Maybe two more downs.

Bad: Invisibility cloak
That’s the only reason I can come up with for how Young was unaccounted for again. There’s so much to this play. I really think Baylor thinks the pass is coming. The last two plays were, I don’t know, not productive? The Bears put 10 in the box. Ten. Daikiel Shorts is outside and alone and the defensive ends seem ready to pass rush. But that’s not terrible news for WVU, even when outnumbered. Clay, who’s next to the right tackle, keeps his guy outside. The rest of the line keeps the action on the left side under control. No one has to hold up for too long, because this is 3 yards we’re talking about here, and Wellman barrels through and pushes his guy toward the goal post. Even Smallwood seems interested in affecting something. He could have done more, sure, but he can’t be expecting Young, who’s the linebacker standing at the base of the “Y” in Baylor, to get through the line and come free here. Yet he does. It’s the pictured play above, and it should not happen. Kyle Bosch just doesn’t touch him, and Young, who’s, like, the only guy who can end this play, ends this play and knocks the towel out of Howard.

How many things had to do wrong for WVU not to score a touchdown in those three plays?

Good: Billings
Fantastic player, and he’s a junior who’s remained adamant he’s not going pro after this season. Orlosky is beat up right now. Bosch has had, I’d say, five better games since he was at WVU. Matteo looked susceptible. They spent their day going up against, no lie, one of the handful of best players in the country.

Good: Start!
WVU didn’t go away or get blown away early, and this answer was encouraging because Baylor started the game with a four-play touchdown drive that made football look too easy. The Mountaineers were expecting to see man-to-man defense, but early on the Bears played more zone than WVU was expecting, and that’s probably a statement about the strengths of WVU’s offense. Howard spent some time diagnosing plays, and there was a lot of pre-snap motion to help. He sees before the snap this is a zone, and after the snap he seestwo defenders deep. Gibson finds some green space in which he makes himself a target. The Bears make a mess in the back end, and figure they’re not too comfortable playing like this (Knoblauchian!), but Gibson sees the pursuit angles and has a great viewpoint to use to his advantage and break a big play.

Bad: Diagnosis
The Bears needed to see this twice — if that — to solve it. WVU emptying the backfield and Howard checking to something else meant he was going to run it. Now, the motion would make Baylor react, and Howard could see if it was man or zone and then count numbers in the box, but when the backfield is empty, there can be no handoff, and when you empty backfield and then you check to something else, you’re making it pretty clear what you’re up to.

Good: Howard (Skyler!)
We’re working in black and white, right? You keep him under behind center or you bench him based on how he plays. There’s not a lot of gray area involved, and that means we don’t need much gray matter, either. I thought he was OK. He wasn’t good enough, but it was a better performance, and I think it’s more clear now how you have to evaluate Howard. Howard is more the-past-three-games Howard than he is the-first-three-games Howard. He’s going to miss some throws and take some chances, and he will, on occasion, make a mistake. He’s not going to complete a high percentage and take risks and play a clean game. If you’re mad he’s not completing 70 percent of his passes and topping 12.5 yards per attempt, you need to revisit the criteria. He was below 50 percent, but I didn’t think he played poorly. He threw four* touchdown passes (* – one was long after we’d settled on an outcome) and finished with 289 yards. He took a lot of deep shots, because that’s how you attack Baylor, and he ran the ball often and somewhat effectively, which was a necessity. That the first play for WVU was a QB draw that was filled with meaning. If you make Baylor account for the quarterback, it opens the WVU offense. If Howard gets acclimated before halftime, the Mountaineers have a greater chance, and Holgorsen admitted as much TuesdayIt was probably the main reason I ran a quarterback draw on the first play. I was hoping he would get the crap knocked out of him to release a lot of tension and anxiety, which I think is good for him. I think he played well. I think it’s been easy to see (through?) how Holgorsen’s handled his quarterback this season, but I have to think he’s equally transparent about the fact he can accept that kind of day from Howard and that no one else on his roster is capable of surpassing it. I’m not sure if that itself is Good or Bad, but it’s the present.

Bad: That said, this happened
As it happened, I didn’t think Howard would have run for a first down. Watching it from this view, again and again, I’m still not sure. He might have made it, and it’s worth a shot to try to gain the yards on foot, especially on third down, but sometimes a historian is a prophet looking backward. It’s easy to say he shouldn’t have thrown this knowing what we know now, but as it happened, I thought it was a touchdown. Gibson was wide-the-hell open. You sort of have to do this in a game that’s going to be played at a pace Saturday’s required. Howard just doesn’t get enough into it. (Aside: The fact he doesn’t set up the throw properly suggest to me he knows those defenders are going to get him.) Now, you’re going to say he shouldn’t throw that ball. I’m going to say Gibson was open, and WVU doesn’t get a lot of those openings or big plays. You’re going to say he has to know fourth down was an option. I’m going to say he can’t assume his throw will be intercepted. You’re going to say he’s got to make a better decision. I’m going to say that’s who he is. You and I, though, can agree on this: The throw wasn’t good enough.

Bad: Fourth downs
Remember when WVU hadn’t allowed an opponent to convert one? Well, Oklahoma State converted the first one in overtime and won. Then Baylor went 4-for-5 and scored a touchdown on all four drives it extended, including one fourth-down touchdown and one conversion a play before a touchdown.The Mountaineers were 1-for-4 and looked strange throwing deep and incomplete passes on a few of them.

Bad: Deep balls
This isn’t a great throw by Howard, because it lands well out of bounds, but I don’t think this play is bad solely because of the throw. Jovon Durante’s route is weird. Again. Remember when he spun Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez around and to the ground? Durante went inside and then up, and that’s not conventional. He does it again here, and that takes time. The throw is wide, I get that, but if Durante is outside the whole time and past the cornerback, maybe he can make a play on this? Maybe not. But we’ll never know. We do know there’s a reason defensive backs are supposed to stay wider than the widest. Anyhow, Howard was 2-for-12 on throws of 20 yards or more for 82 yards and a touchdown. There was also one pass interference penalty and a play that would have been a 78-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter had Gibson held onto the ball. The Mountaineers had to take chances in 1-on-1 situations, and they knew they were going to get many against Baylor. WVU did a lot of damage that way in last season’s win and did very little this time. That begs an obvious counterpoint: Did the Mountaineers, who have disclosed their problems at quarterback and receiver, really have to take all those chances? I’ll hang up and listen.

Good: This guy
Then again, maybe they were right to aim deep. Just break the glass, grab David Sills and throw him on the field. But let’s be real here: He’s a good story right now. He’s a very good athlete. He’s extraordinarily raw. Baylor’s cornerbacks are not to be confused with TCU’s. Baylor’s scheme is not to be confused with TCU’s. If he has that success again, champion it. If he doesn’t, accept it. I don’t think I have to tell you this, but perhaps it’s wise to share it with others: Set your expectations accordingly and let this happen at the pace it happens. (Aside: You’ve got to get him touches now. Got to. How? Beats me. Quick passes? End arounds? Some snaps at QB? Zone read? I don’t know. But he can’t be a kid who played in the sixth game. If he’s playing for the reasons everyone is saying he’s playing, then he needs to become involved. That might not be easy for a true freshman converted quarterback who had never caught a pass at any level before Saturday, but there are things that can make it easier on him.)

Bad: Depth
WVU’s offensive line has six players. The receiving corps is, again, thin. Sills is ahead of Durante on the depth chart, and while my instinct says, Yeah, well, how’d that work out for Devonte Mathis? that is by no means an endorsement of Durante. The freshman hasn’t done much lately, and Mathis isn’t someone who can keep Sills on the sideline. But the major revelation Saturday is how short WVU is in the secondary. I mean, yikes. Star power covered up that issue, but playing without Karl Joseph and Terrell Chestnut put the spotlight on that, didn’t it?

There’s a giant fluorescent arrow over Daryl Worley’s head now. It’s convenient to look at the way he played early Saturday and say he’s having a bad run and opponents are picking on him, but that over looks Coleman’s part in it. Maybe opponents aren’t picking on him — and maybe they are — but they’re definitely not afraid of Worley. And the thing is, he doesn’t do much wrong here against the supremely talented Coleman.

Here’s where Baylor’s spacing is severely underrated. There are essentially six offensive linemen up front and Seth Russell can run it just as well as Shock Linwood here … and maybe anywhere else on the field. Tony Gibson’s going to ask his cornerbacks to survive 1-on-1 in these spots — very few defensive coordinators will give safety help here, because where do you put one? — and no one was complaining when Worley was picking off passes in the end zone in Cover Zero against Maryland. But there’s so much space on the left side, and Coleman’s just really quick-footed and strong in a small space. Dude’s a muscly Tavon Austin, isn’t he? It looks like Worley’s working really hard to protect against the fade when you’d think he’d rather use the smaller space to his right and the sideline as his friends and guard against Coleman accessing all that space to Worley’s left. Coleman just smokes Worley here. Takes his hands out of the play completely.

So Worley was shaken, and Gibson sat him, which is sort of rare. Rasul Douglas comes in and does all right for two series. WVU’s playing some zone and scaling back the blitzes. Before Gibson can even open his mind to maybe wrap his arms around a new plan, Chestnut hurts his shoulder and comes out for the rest of the game. Worley comes back in playing a new position, and though he was pretty good from there on out, the secondary was not. Douglas and Ricky Rumph gave up touchdowns to Coleman, and the one against Douglas was so simple that he was out of the game soon thereafter.

But stop here. Worley has been rattled and is playing the opposite of the field. Chestnut is out. Douglas can’t go. That brings Ricky Rumph into the game, and he’s a reliable cornerback, good enough to be third behind Worley and Chestnut. But he’s been playing bandit safety after the injury to Joseph, and the plan was to get him in against Baylor so the Mountaineers would have an extra cornerback on the field and so that starter Jarrod Harper could get some rest and stay fresh throughout a long, hot day.

That didn’t work out great, though. There’s a difference between Rumph and Harper.


Rumph is on the 1 in “2nd & 1” but only for a moment.

Harper’s across from the left tackle. More than a slight difference there. (Aside: Baylor pulls its tackles on trap and power plays. I can’t get over that.)

There were times in the game, and specifically when WVU was making a game of this, when Harper and Rumph were on the field together. Some combination of Worley/Chestnut/Douglas had the two corner spots, Harper was the bandit and Rumph was in as a nickelback in place of a linebacker. When Gibson pulled Douglas in favor of Rumph, there was no nickel defense, and that’s not easy against Baylor.

I counted one snap after halftime when the Mountaineers played their nickel defense. Here it is.

It’s Cover 2 with man-to-man underneath the two deep safeties, except that Harper doesn’t keep the top on it and Jay Lee gallops through the secondary to essentially finish this.

So WVU was playing with its fourth cornerback (Aside: Nana Kyeremeh’s career. Discuss.) and without a nickel package against friggin’ Baylor. It’s the consequence of circumstances, but Gibson doesn’t have bodies to fill in right now.

Good: Baylor
Almost finished, gang, but here’s where I want to point out the big difference with Baylor this season. Well, there were two differences. The first was that the Bears disarmed WVU’s pressure. There was one sack and just two other hits. That’s it. That’s Bad. There were a lot of blitzes, but they were mostly stonewalled or ineffective. Still, Baylor went for quick passes, used some play action and did well to keep WVU’s blitzers uncertain or unable or both. There was some formation stuff, too, like the two-receiver stacks, which prevents cornerbacks from jamming receivers and thus disrupting the QB-WR timing mechanism. But Russell’s another threat. Bryce Petty doesn’t do this last season, and WVU wasn’t worried about it. A year ago, this is a 4-yard loss and third-and-11. This year, the Bears have a wrinkle and Russell’s wiggle is an axe splitting dry wood.

Russell hadn’t run like he did Saturday. He kept it more. His number was called more. He was great. He’d done some of it, but not all of it, and this was unfair. Baylor had been running some speed option plays, when Russell takes the snap and hurries to the short side of the field with an option to pitch to his running back. This is designed to fool WVU into pursuing that play and getting beat by this play. I love this play, and Baylor’s in a good place when it’s getting crowd reactions like that.

But this trips package is diabolical. I’m confident that if the Bears take the season where they intend to take it that writers will be putting together features on this, and unnamed defensive coordinators will be quoted wishing Baylor’s opponent the best of luck.

Pause this before the snap and examine the situation for WVU. There’s a running back and perhaps two if you consider Russell’s legs. WVU has to put six defenders in the box, three defensive backs with the stack to the right and one with Coleman alone on the left. Free safety Dravon Askew-Henry (not pictured) is somewhere near Temple, and though he’s too deep for my taste, I get the idea.

I don’t know what the alternatives are. Bring the deep safety closer and risk losing his help against vertical routes or a jail break. Take a linebacker out in favor of a nickelback and you’re outmanned and/or outnumbered against the run. You’re asking corners to nail their fundamentals again and again, but it’s really hard to jam or to play back and not risk or cede consequences here.

WVU got lucky on that one, but good fortune was fleeting.

I think the best counter is to have fun with linebackers/safeties. Drop them. Blitz them. Use those pieces as best as you can to give the QB something to consider, something to disrupt the timing. But WVU tries to heat up Russell here, and Coleman doesn’t drop this one. (Aside: Mack, how fast is Howard?)

Then again, WVU fans out its linebackers here, and Shaq Petteway can’t help at the snap. He eventually re-enters the equation, but by then the damage is done. What this run play (package?) somehow accomplishes is outnumbering the defense on one side even with three receivers isolated on the opposite side. The tackle swinging left to right helps a lot, and the Bears have taken the three defensive backs at the bottom of the screen, Petteway and the right defensive end out of the play at the snap while K.J. Dillon is purposefully deep but also out of the play. That means 6/11ths of the defense is neutralized when the play starts — we can discuss whether the left cornerback at the top of the screen is actually in the play — and Baylor’s only lost the three receivers. Pause it at 0:02. You see the back of a lot of WVU players while Baylor builds a canal. It’s crazy, and it’s a good thing Dillon is in the back. Watch it all the way through for more looks at this space and to hear Very Good Joel Klatt explain it.

Baylor ran 16 plays from this set:

  • Russell completed 4 of 7 passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns, and Harper was called for pass interference that likely prevented a touchdown
  • Baylor ran nine times for 77 yards
  • That’s 11.5 yards per play … and 11.7 when you add the 15 yards for the pass interference
  • Six of the 17 plays (and that includes the penalty) gained more than the average

The Bears knew what they had and when to use it. They only used the formation five times in the first half and then, no doubt knowing WVU was down and down on defensive backs, they used it on every play of their first possession of the second half. That seven-play drive ended on the fourth-down touchdown pass to Coleman when Rumph slipped on the green ice. That was a massive momentum swing following WVU’s empty possession to start the second half.

The Mountaineers were running out of chances, and Baylor made sure of it. At the end of the third quarter, a fourth-down pass into the end zone to Durante fell incomplete. The Bears, leading 41-24, took possession at their 48-yard line. With the pressure mounting, WVU tried to defend the trips one last time. No one covered Lee, who caught a quick pass and sprinted for the end zone.