WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. TCU

Picture. Thousand words. You know that line. I think this nails it from six nights ago, and this was TCU’s first drive of the game. Of course, it followed WVU’s opening drive in which one touchdown pass was dropped after an initial testing of the secondary fell incomplete inside TCU’s 5-yard line.

Those plays, or drops if you must, since the players certainly didn’t make the plays, can be put on a stage and debated. Should they make the plays? Is it expecting too much? On and on until someone’s too blue or red in the face to continue. Whatever the consensus there, we can agree on this: It didn’t come easy to WVU.

That picture? That’s a snapshot of easy. Just watch this and tell me what was so hard about it.

But here’s the impressive or troubling part of it, depending if you’re looking at this from the neutral/TCU side or the WVU side, of course. It’s not supposed to be this easy.

Dana Holgorsen talks a lot about the timing between his quarterback and his receivers. It’s hard to visualize his explanations … until now. Trevone Boykin is throwing this to Josh Doctson way before the ball is snapped. He knows the play. Doctson knows the play. Even the slot receiver knows the play. The three of them see the defense and they know the inside guy will do nothing to put his defender in the vicinity of the eventual throw and Doctson will get outside the cornerback and scoot up the rail and Boykin will arch one into a bucket. It’s exactly what happens.

Freeze it at :03. Boykin is pulling the trigger before Doctson has even engaged Terrell Chestnut, who even in a diminished state is a worthy adversary for a play like this. Boykin and Doctson take it out of Chestnut’s hands though. Hand. Whatever. The ball is in the air when Doctson and Chestnut are chicken fighting, but Doctson knows where he has to be and how to stride to that spot. He doesn’t panic or tip Chestnut, and by the time Chestnut turns for the ball like he’s supposed to, Doctson has him beat and legs out the rest of the route.

The best way to put it is to say this is a practice play executed during a game. WVU — this WVU, I should say, because we’ve seen this in gold and blue before — tries this and either doesn’t make the throw or complicates it on the back end of the action.

And this is also the best way to describe the biggest difference in Forth Worth. TCU’s good enough to do that. WVU isn’t. TCU’s receivers and one defensive back made the catches. WVU’s receivers and defensive backs did not. The Horned Frogs are better than the Mountaineers for a bunch of reasons, but we’re concerned with one game, and in that one game, it was as easy as that.

That was a long time ago, and we’ve all had time to think about where things are, where they must go, so on and so forth. I don’t know about the latter, but I think I’ve got the former figured out now. Ready?

WVU is not one of the four best teams in the Big 12. Just not good enough to beat Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor or TCU. Whoa, we almost beat Oklahoma State. What do you mean we’re not good enough? I mean exactly that. If the Mountaineers were indeed good enough, they would have avoided or overcome one of the killer errors in that game. Just one. Didn’t happen. That there were more killer errors against TCU ought to say more about the game against Oklahoma State and maybe even Oklahoma. So, no, not good enough to beat those four.

But that’s not necessarily a bad place to be. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not a great place, either, but if I have to explain that, I probably have to teach you what to do with those laces on those things on your feet. Those are four very good teams. There might be a national champion in there. There might be a Heisman Trophy in there. Those honors might fall to separate teams. One team is probably making the playoff. Another could make it, though likely won’t, and even then that team could be in position to make a strong case for inclusion. The other may be 10-win squads. Three of these teams could be the best its program has ever seen. (I’m excluding Oklahoma because of its tradition … and I thought about Oklahoma State. That, to me, is the team least likely to exceed its greatest height, which was a 12-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in the final poll after the 2011 season, whereas TCU and Baylor could very well make their own history. But those three are here today.)

I’ve seen this argument that this is supposed to be Dana Holgorsen’s best team, and, politely, I’d like to counter that by clearing my throat and stating calmly, “So what?” Really, what does that even mean? It feels like crafted and convenient criticism. A straw man. It doesn’t mean he’s not capable of better (or worse) and it doesn’t mean he goes 0-4 against the Big 12’s four best teams every year. So get that out of here, please.

Similarly, this is not a last-place outfit, either, never mind what today’s standings say, and I’m confident and virtually convinced this is better than a ninth-place team. This feels like a team that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason and still could. It might be fifth. It might be seventh. I suppose it could even be eighth, but I feel like this elevator doesn’t go that low, and maybe that’s just me.

The next two home games (oh, those first 15 minutes Saturday!) and the regular-season finale (do you hear those Bill Snyder whispers?) are the answers you don’t yet have. What we do hold in our hands now are four Big 12 games and all the proof we need to know all we do know: This isn’t one of the conference’s best.

And yes, I realize that’s not going to be a popular, satiating take, but that’s what I’ve got after several hours in the Tier 4 Studio. I can’t draw more conclusions, because this season is weird.

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

Bad: Warning
If you want to save yourself some time, you should know there’s a lot of Good Boykin in here. I’ve seen and, if I’m being honest, consumed conversations (Aside: Way too much time on my hands with the uneven weeks) about where his performance ranked among opposing players or quarterbacks, and that’s too tall for me. But how about his: I’m a Heisman Trophy voter and I’m having a hard time putting Leonard Fournette above Boykin. I think he’s amazing.

Bad: Organization
I don’t want to … drop … the ball on formatting, so I’ll explain. If a video is above a bold line, that video is covered in the paragraph below the bold line. Generally speaking, a video will be covered by the text below it, whether there’s a bold line or not. I’ll be clear if I sense confusion. Anyhow, we’re counting four drops, and on a scale from most unacceptable to most acceptable — I couldn’t think of a better scale — I consider this the most acceptable, meaning the other three were worse. We’ll cover these in order. Reverse order. Sue me.

These are all different plays, but I think they have one very important thing in common: They all should have been caught, meaning the receiver made a poor play. But on this one, it’s easier for me to credit the cornerback than to blame Jovon Durante. He’s in the air and he’s got his hands on the football, but the defender does a better job corrupting the play before Durante can do a better job finishing the play. It’s not great offense, but it’s better described as good defense.

Here’s the second-most acceptable drop. In a vacuum, it’s bad, and I mean bad enough that I’m not sure it matters that David Sills is new to receiver here, because he nailed this play against Baylor … but David Sills looks like he’s new to receiver here. He’s not really set up to catch the ball over his outside shoulder, and that’s probably something he’d master if he had more time there. Still should make the play, though.

This is the second-most unacceptable, meaning there’s just one worse. I don’t believe the defender hit this pass, and it looks like Gibson’s catch mechanism seems to have started late. His arms are wide when the ball passes through, so I’m not sure he catches this without the defender’s intrusion. It’s entirely possible the defender blocked Gibson’s vision, too. Gibson wouldn’t say after the game, but Lonnie Galloway said his receiver needs to catch this one because (of where) it hit him. (Side Bad: Gibson drops. Hard to forget he fixes upon these things. Remember when we dubbed Karl Joseph the sixth hitter? He was going to strike out a bunch and hit for a low average, but he’d hit a lot of homers and drive in a slew of runs. Is that Gibson? Plenty of time to solve that, though, and let’s not forget Josep became a Triple Crown winner in this comparison.)

Worst one. Drew a reaction out of Skyler Howard we hadn’t seen before. He was mad. Look, these things happen, but we can say Durante’s slumping. Freshman wall? Cornerbacks who aren’t worried about AP history classes or the winter formal or the ACT? It’s something. He was making these plays and harder plays earlier in the season.

Good: What Klatt said
I’m a Joel Klatt fan. There, I said it. And he’s right here, which overlaps my point in the opening segment. But it’s not happening deep, and I’m here to make an announcement: I’m retiring the deep throws stat. Howard was 1-for-12 for a 32-yard touchdown to Gibson. But the drops were killers. The throws were all over the map and curiously placed when considering down and distance, though to be fair, we don’t know what was called and what was Howard’s call. But MTEP was introduced and maintained to track one of Clint Trickett’s strengths — he was sneaky good at moving around to extend a play and make a throw. Deep balls might be a feature of this offense and of Howard’s repertoire, but let’s not call them strengths. (Side Good: I dig that stacked formation. Easy releases for WVU’s downfield threats. If you’re chucking it deep, you need to get those guys off the line at the snap, and this accomplishes that. I’d like to see that continue.)

Bad: Officiating
I hate that we’re talking about officials, but it is 2015 and it’s an epidemic this season. I’m not sure how they don’t throw a flag for pass interference there. Sills was called for holding when he was tackled making a block. I didn’t think either defense was consistently given ample time to substitute. They missed large offensive linemen decidedly downfield on pass plays. But here’s my confession: I don’t think they were terrible. I think we’re looking for bad stuff because everything about officiating this season, and that includes within the Big 12, has been questionable or worse, and that makes commentators and fans and players and coaches particularly opinionated. I fear what it means when I list a handful of things I didn’t like and then say I didn’t think the officiating was all that bad. But I really didn’t see a problem with any of the pass interference calls against WVU, and though I know you’re steamed about the first on Chestnut, understand the live shot didn’t catch it and you never saw a replay. Chestnut interfered, which explains the back judge’s quizzical decision to throw when the side judge standing right there did not. I wish officiating was better, but mostly I wish it wasn’t a storyline. (Aside: Tony Gibson sent a couple calls to the Big 12 to get explanations. Coaches never mention that unless it’s something outrageous.)

Bad: Reads
I also hate to keep saying this, but it is important and fair to remember we don’t know the call and the instructions. Still, I think it’s fair to say this outcome is preventable. The left cornerback blitzes, and Sills realizes he has a chance to take a seat and move the sticks. Howard doesn’t see it. It’s possible he saw Shelton Gibson get past the corner, who then falls, but the throw isn’t great and the safety is deep enough to get over to cause a problem. But on an earlier fourth-down play that saw a throw go through the end zone, Howard missed (and Klatt saw) William Crest open to Howard’s right.

Bad: Repeat
Remember Howard’s touchdown pass to Gibson? This is essentially the same play. The inside receiver cuts it short and inside to suck in the safety, and that leaves Gibson and his jet pack 1-on-1 with the cornerback and the middle of the field. I have no idea how to critique or comment on Howard’s throws. On some of the aforementioned drops, throws that are on more of a line and do less tickling of clouds might make a difference, but Howard’s also a sub-6 footer with probably just an above average arm, so he needs air to get distance. But sometimes he gets too much altitude/not enough distance. He overthrows plays like the above one and he underthrows plays like this (twice). He’s not consistent, and I wonder two things:

1) Is his arm OK? Maybe it’s not a health concern, but what about fatigue? Quite likely, he’s never thrown as much as he has since the start of spring football. I’m guessing dozens of thousands of throws. It can add up, and if you’re not conditioned to it, it can become an issue.

2) Is he used to this offense and all the throws as well as the quality of the defenses? Howard toyed with junior college defenses. He was great early this season against inferior defenses. He then struggled and had four bad quarters in succession — second half of Oklahoma, first half of Oklahoma State — but he was better in each of the past two games.

If you’re looking for silver linings, there’s one. He’s been better. There’s a ceiling, and in 2015 it’s probably not too far away, but there’s still room and it would seem he’s found the ladder. No one should think ascending is a bad thing, no matter the depth from where it starts.

Bad: Ah!
Actually, this isn’t a bad idea by Howard. Look at the thumbnail before pressing play. Crest is open for the throw, and the pass interference gives WVU a first down … but watch Ka’Raun White, who starts in the slot and curves a route up the rail. Trickett throws this to Kevin White. Ka’Raun White and Howard aren’t on that level with one another yet, but perhaps Ka’Raun can talk Howard into a road trip in the offseason. It’s a risky decision on fourth down, I get that, but it’s another example of time not yet under the belts of the quarterback and his receivers.

Goad: Offensive line
Ron Crook only used five guys Thursday. Some also-rans got in late, but only late. Say what you want about their performance, but those five went at it pretty hard regardless of the score. There were some hands-on-knees moments in the second half, but, come on. What was the alternative? The overall performance wasn’t great, though I thought pass protection was all right (TCU didn’t blitz much, because it has many of the issues the Mountaineers have), save one play. Marquis Lucas is in a tough spot here, and No. 42 sneaks by. The run blocking was iffy early, but it got better and was acceptable for as long as running the ball was an acceptable idea. But it was likely that neither was going to be Good or great given the fact there was no Yodny Cajuste and WVU doesn’t have two backup linemen. If you want to comment on that, have at it, because this is a problem. If you want to be hard on the way the line played, consider the circumstances. I expect a shakeup this week, though. (Aside: I wrote that sentence Monday. Crook said Tuesday changes to the starting lineup are likely. I would assume they’re worried about Cajuste being ready for Saturday and want Adam Pankey back at left guard, because he did not look great at left tackle. Grant Lingafelter, that’s your music.)

Good: Lingerers
I thought WVU was the better team for the second quarter, and I thought the breaks were there to let the Mountaineers back in the game. Tony Gibson didn’t blitz very much. I remember but a few. This is one, and look how screwed up everything is before the snap. Guys are on the wrong side of the field. Chestnut’s trying to get a timeout, and I can’t believe the official didn’t give it to him even though ah wait yes I can even though the official is right there what a mess. It’s chaos, and it’s the recipe for what happens next, which is a 61-yard touchdown … that’s erased by a penalty on TCU. Bullet dodged. The above video is another blitz later in the second quarter, and the Mountaineers duck another haymaker. Bending, bending, bending. I believe in these things, and I believe WVU was/is due to get some good luck again.

I would have bet a case of Red Bull that Holgorsen would have gone into the locker room spent halftime rolling around in a bed of 20-10 scores. And I would have lost. There are two ways to look at this, but I see just one. Anyhow…

  • He’s the underdog on the road, and he knows he needs points. He’s got 65 second left after TCU’s field goal, and he thinks he can get at least three on the board. You’re kicking to start the second half anyhow, so why not?
  • He’s the underdog on the road, and he got out of the corner after taking a barrage on the nose and falling behind 17-0. True, 20-17 is cool and 20-13 is satisfying, too, but the key to either is the 20, so you can’t risk altering that.

Holgorsen chose Door No. 1 or ignored Door No. 2, and doing either was wrong because the incomplete pass on first down doomed his plan, which even then seemed overly ambitious given state of his offense. But I also think Holgorsen might have been right. Points were needed and, if we’re being honest, if Ed Muldrow doesn’t lose his head and draw the illegal substitution penalty, TCU doesn’t score on that drive. (Aside: But seriously, a pass on first down was Bad. Especially after it got tipped at the line.)

Good: Select defenders
WVU’s playing nickel here, which didn’t happen too often, and Xavier Preston is the linebacker standing just outside the double arrows to the right of the “9” in third-and-9. He’s not supposed to make this play. I mean, Boykin isn’t supposed to do what he did, but Preston’s a 6-foot-2, 235-pounder who, clearly, can run. And while we’re here on the topic of defense, let’s point out two names on a night when we used many of them: Noble Nwachukwu and Darrien Howard. Nwachukwu was as good as he could be in constant 3-on-5 battles. Howard’s just good, man. We’re a long way from needing to have these discussions, but Larry Jefferson and Xavier Pegues need to be good next season and Alec Shriner and Adam Schuler need to develop because Nwachukwu and Howard five WVU a good start up front in 2016.

Good: Ingenuity
Bad: The lack thereof
This is fetching. It flummoxes a flummoxable defense, and here’s where the injuries matter. Jeremy Tyler (No. 24) is a serviceable player, and coaches say a lot of nice things about him, but he doesn’t play much, and that matters for two reasons. For one, you tend to get really good guys on the field. They do you no good on the sideline. Second, and more importantly, you need to play. That’s the only way you get used to things like this so you don’t bite on misdirection and so you do catch things like the blocking heading up the field or, you know, the quarterback running past you.


Seriously, look at that. Basically all his defense is looking at Boykin as Boykin gets by Tyler, who hasn’t found Boykin and the ball. I’m not picking on Tyler, honest. He hasn’t played a lot, and I thought TCU took liberties against cornerbacks and safeties it knew were vulnerable. If Tyler does wake up and pursues Boykin, the quarterback has Kyle Hicks, one of the premier running back recruits from the 2013 recruiting class, on his right and on the move. It’s a good play.

It’s might even be a great play. TCU had already hit a reverse to the left, so it’s understandable why WVU reacts the way it does. This end result puts the best player on the field on the move to his strong side with defenders heading the other way.

TCU would also throw a pair of halfback passes. Let me ask you this: Doesn’t WVU need something similarly tricky and thus exciting? I would argue yes, if not to get the players pumped up about one play and one situation, then to maybe score on one snap. These double passes with Crest are just OK. WVU didn’t fool Oklahoma State or Baylor with either one. I can remember two flea flickers — on successive snaps, no less — at Texas in 2012 and a fake punt against Maryland this season as the only chicanery Holgorsen has employed. Whatever they’ve done with Crest has been limited, and Sills has been used solely a receiver isolated to the outside on the right side of the field. Holgorsen’s offense at its core is imaginative, so it’s not fair to say it’s lacked creativity, but it could use a jolt.

Bad: Then again…
Here’s some ingenuity. It would look like Skyler Howard has the option to throw a pop pass here or to run it. This is something you’ve hollered about in the red zone. Fox totally and spectacularly jinxes it, and that witchcraft takes over Howard’s body and unleashes a ball that shouldn’t have left the quarterback’s hand.

Bad: Trips to the boundary
TCU uses it regularly, so it’s not like the Horned Frogs saw Baylor slay WVU with it and said, “Yeah, let’s do that.” Truth be told, TCU didn’t embarrass the Mountaineers with it, and WVU did a better job defending it. It hit here, though, and poor Rasul Douglas just couldn’t handle Doctson. I’d fear Corey Coleman more, but I wouldn’t relax if Doctson was on the other side — and I’ve talked to NFL people who’d take Doctson first. He’s a sneaky athlete, seemingly just by association. Kolby Listenbee is the All-America sprinter, and KaVonte Turpin might be faster. Doctson’s 6-foot-3 (WVU says he’s bigger) and makes things look really easy. It’s funny, but it wasn’t long ago when skeptics wondered if TCU could get skill position talent. How that program has reinvented its offense and the reputation therein in a year-and-a-half is remarkable.

Good: The Boykin portion of the program
He helps that reputation a whole lot. That guy playing at this level is the ideal Air Raid quarterback. He’s a floor above Heisman Trophy Johnny Manziel. You’re running this offense and you’re not looking for Tim Couch or Graham Harrell or Case Keenum or Brandon Weeden or Jon Football. It’s Boykin. These offenses have been moving toward runners, or at least players who can use their legs. Boykin’s a stellar athlete. He’s a hell of a football player. But he’s become an exceptional quarterback by understanding how to harness his athletic ability and his football acumen to heighten all the threats he can pose as a passer. He has no molds. I don’t know what play was best. What is this one, which had people in the press box laughing and wondering why or how he threw that pass? Was it this one, which just defies definition? Was it this flip into the end zone, which is going to make the Heisman Trophy promotional reel (Aside: Ah, stay outside Tyler!)

The answer is none of the above, and and his greatest moment was this four-play sequence that I still can’t believe I witnessed.

This is an incomplete pass, but it’s one of the top  12 incomplete passes of all time. I will not argue this. He’s basically down, except he’s not, and his eyes are down the field, which is what makes him so, so dangerous. Table set, folks.

There are special players in the return game or on offense who know when they’re not going to be tackled. It’s hard to describe, but what I mean is players are running at them and trying their damnedest to make the tackle, but the person with the ball knows it’s not going to happen at that moment and is instead looking to the next moment. It’s truly commendable when you think about it because there’s no simulating that action. You’re not practicing those scenarios to build up that comfort and confidence. Every pursuit is different because every player is different. There is no if-then scenario in these spots. There’s no learned escape route. It’s innate. Bokin has that in scary and enjoyable bushels. Just watch him here. Heck, watch all the plays. You can see him making those moves after deciding he wasn’t going to be tackled at that moment. (Aside: We’re not done with this play.)

We have to mention a few names here, and one is Jared Barber just because I can’t not mention him. Mike Vick and Vince Young are worthy names to compare Boykin to, and a WVU coach gave me Colt McCoy. I have two: One is Aaron Rodgers, who is great at getting out of trouble, but who will also try and pull off any pass from and with any release point in any predicament. The other is Todd Reesing, which a few of you will laugh at. Fine, a lot of you will laugh at that. I’m still not sure why, but I watched a lot of Kansas in 2007, and he made plays like this all the time. Reesing, who was a great college player, was 5-11. Boykin’s 6-2. I hope he gets a fair shake in the NFL.

This is the final play of the sequence — and, yes, those other three players were in succession. Boykin is just about gassed here. He’s breathing heavy before the snap, but he snaps off a wow throw to Doctson. Sheesh.

Bad: Discussion
Let’s talk about the low five to Boykin. I am in the middle on this. I could listen to arguments from the people who hated it and thought it was unbecoming of WVU’s head coach, and I’d be inclined to join their side. I could listen to arguments from people who thought it was funny and cool and simply Holgorsen doing something he’s prone to do, and I’d be inclined to join their side. I could even argue for either party. Holgorsen’s been a fan of Boykin’s for a while. Boykin initiated the low five. But Boykin’s on the other team and the head coach, fan or not, shouldn’t exhibit that approval of an opponent in the game. Right in the middle, gang.

But watch it again and see No. 27. That’s Sean Walters, who’s played for a few years now without any major contributions. He’s pissed that Boykin did what he just did. What if we flipped roles? What if Holgorsen was pissed and Walters dapped Boykin? Does Holgorsen hurry over, not to scold Walters, but to also offer his hand to Boykin? Or is he carpet F-bombing Walters? It’s interesting.

I think it’s fair to say this: That’s Holgorsen. That’s “Both, huh? Is that right? and “That sucks, man.” That’s the sky diver and the guy who Twitter jousts with Jake Spavital. That’s #SweetCaroline. That’s “ESPecially Happy About This!” If you like that guy, you can’t hold this one against him. If you don’t like that guy, you’re right to add to your armament.