WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Texas Tech


Yeah! I propose we start at the finish and sign, seal and send the final sequence of events in Saturday’s win against Texas Tech. This tends to happen, because I cycle through so many texts, tweets, email and comments, but I’ve thought over the 16-play, 6 minute, 47 second drive that ended the game, and I’ve come up with some ideas and explanations.

And this means I’ve probably overthought things. I know that. You probably know that, too. But ladies and gentlemen of the fury, I’d like to call Tony Gibson, defensive coordinator for West Virginia’s football team, to the stand.

“The offense kept us off the field,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “I’m thinking, ‘All right. Five minutes to go. We’ve got a short field. How are we going to run all the time out?’ The only way it could have happened, it happened.”

Show of hands: Who thought the Mountaineers were going to have the ball the rest of the game? The Red Raiders kicked the ball out of bounds. There was, like, half a quarter left to play. WVU hadn’t held onto the ball for as many plays or as much of the clock in the first seven games.

So I’m OK with the first pass play. I was of the mind WVU needed points on the drive. I wasn’t thinking the Mountaineers were going to hide the football at that point in the possession. That pass play had worked, and you can’t knock the play call solely because Rushel Shell fumbled, because arguing against passing endorses a handoff to Shell.

True, the play didn’t have a chance, not even if there was just a hint of a perimeter block (Side Bad: Shelton Gibson was taken out of the game because he wasn’t blocking), and it set up third-and-7, except that that never happened. Branden Jackson fell victim to a … shell … game.

(Aside: Reporter Mike is glad Shell had a good game. He’s really funny. And honest. “I know a lot about his school, so I said some stuff he didn’t really like,” Shell confessed. “I’d just fumbled the ball, so I knew I was getting taken out. Then he pushed me. I’m like, ‘All right, I can get out on that.’ ” I can imagine him picking himself up from under the pile, rapidly retrieving and then cycling through his McKeesport High smack talk Rolodex, shouting “They shoulda never released Street Scholars!,” and Jackson just snapping.)

Shell is removed from the game and Wendell Smallwood enters. He runs for 8 yards, 6 yards and 4 yards, and we’ve learned that giving Smallwood a fourth straight carry is like feeding mogwai after midnight. You seemingly can’t do it.

So Skyler Howard changes a run to a pass at the line. The second-and-6 snap comes with 3:49 left and WVU on Texas Tech’s 29-yard line, and I happen to think Dana Holgorsen is in four down mode right there — it’s a long field-goal attempt with two-plus minutes to go. I have my doubts Howard knows that, but I do know the ball is on the left hash and WVU has three receivers to the right in 1-on-1 coverage. Not one of them gets open on the play. Howard is rolling right, and some have said he could have run forward or taken the hit and left the ball in play and either kept the clock going or forced a timeout.

That wasn’t going to happen. A defensive end got outside the right tackle, and a linebacker was spying on Howard. A run loses a couple yards. He instead wings it out of bounds, which loses no yards. If it’s four-down territory, that’s a big play. If it’s three-down territory, it’s still an important decision with regard to a field-goal attempt.

Well-rested Smallwood then rips off 10 yards, and you’re wondering and right to wonder why he didn’t just get it on the play before. “Texas Tech had eight defenders in the box!” you say, and then I counter with, “Texas Tech had eight Texas Tech defenders in the box!”

Anyhow, first down at the 19. Howard gains a yard, and then WVU lines up with the ball on the right hash and two receivers on the left. The Red Raiders simply are not expecting Howard to change to a pass, which he does, and Daikiel Shorts is open on the left. He is. He catches it and turns right and gets the first down and maybe a touchdown … except the throw is too early and Shorts doesn’t know it’s on him when it’s on him.

Mr. Holgorsen, your thoughts.

I can’t explain the decision, except to say Howard saw a chance and tried to take it. But it is reckless. It’s definitely not four-down territory there, and though you’re only going to take a few seconds off the clock with runs on second and third down, the larger gain is making Texas Tech call it’s remaining two timeouts. I think those two pauses are more valuable than three points. And I think you know that, so while I hear criticism of Holgorsen for even allowing a pass to be considered, never mind executed, I don’t get it. Do you need to tell your starting quarterback how the clock works? I mean, I guess you do, given what happened, but it sure looks like Holgorsen was as surprised as anyone. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t call a timeout as he watches he QB change a run to a pass — he’s surprised. (I also wonder if they tape the headset communiques. And I wonder if I can FOIA those.)

Ultimately, it’s moot because WVU runs two times, the Red Raiders call two timeouts and a third run is followed by a facemask that gives the Mountaineers a first down and the right to take three knees after four straight losses.

How did we get here? Well, besides all that? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Texas Tech. (As always, shares, RTs, likes and likes are appreciated and encouraged. Apologies for the SD version today. My squad had myriad issued getting an HD copy in time for me to get going and get this done as scheduled.)

Good: Hitman
I’ve always liked Sean Walters. We’ve only spoken once, but it was fun, and he really hasn’t done a whole lot in a Mountaineers uniform except getting called for an absurd personal foul on the sideline in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game he didn’t even play in last season but nevertheless affected. But this was fantastic to watch, and I took great joy in sharing it in the game post.

That was an amazing celebration by Sean Walters. He popped to his feet, strutted for 20 yards and then stood on the 10-yard line with his arms crossed all by himself.

WVU played really, really well on special teams, and the coverage teams are quietly quite good this season. Walters had two special teams tackles and now has a greater plaudit for his bio: Special teams player of the week. (Side Good: Khairi Sharif had one tackle on a kickoff, and that came after he held the ball on Nick O’Toole’s kickoff.)

Good: Defensive player of the week
It’s not pretty, but it’s not easy, either. Yet the Mountaineers had eyes on Jakeem Grant from start to finish — and he did nothing in the second half.

Good: Not this play, but what it did
Red zone. Third down. Gibson sends just his three defensive linemen and drops into Cover 3, and what happens just shouldn’t happen. Pat Mahomes is craftier than the Mountaineers anticipated, and this was their introduction to that — you can develop a feel for a player on film, but it’s different live. WVU more or less draws a line with defenders at the goal line to prevent a touchdown, but the scramble puts all of that planning into conflict, and the throw to Grant gives the little guy a chance to find a little space. That wasn’t their plan, but it worked.

Safely assume Gibson kept that thorn in his craw.

The above play isn’t the red zone, but it’s close enough that you’re made to remember recent history and, you know, learn from it rather than repeat it. Here’s a generally accepted rule of WVU’s defense: If the QB looks to the sideline for some “check with me” stuff, the Mountaineers will change their play. They’re just not letting the offense get a look at what they’re doing and then get into play that suits what the defense showed. So now let’s remember Grant’s touchdown. Gibson was passive. He’s showing an aggressive hand here. Mahomes sees it and checks with the sideline and gets a new play. WVU, we can presume, will change the play, and check K.J. Dillon waving off the play the defense was showing. WVU then sends seven. He either didn’t wave off anything or WVU switched from coverage to attack, and Texas Tech is running a play that should work against defensive backs yielding space, since that happened previously. Mahomes hurried a high throw. Gibson & Co. pulled a fast one.

In the third quarter, WVU threw some Cover 2 with man-to-man under it instead of a zone, and Daryl Worley, who was actually playing an outside leverage, trailed his receiver inside and intercepted Mahomes inside the 10. (Side Good: That was a great play, really, given that Worley did it all on his own.) That preceded, I thought, the play of the game.

WVU’s showing blitz above, and Mahomes again checks with the sideline. The Mountaineers then drop eight, build a fence at the goal line, cover everything and get a great effort play by Noble Nwachukwu, who continues to be a bright spot. (Side Bad: Hated Texas Tech’s plan on this sequence. DeAndre Washington is good. The offensive line is big and mean and experienced. The first-down play was a jet sweep with a receiver pass attached. The second-down play was a fancy inside run to the right after motion to the left, and it lost 2 yards. After first-and-goal at the 3, the Red Raiders kicked a 27-yard field goal.)

Bad: Conflict
I think the most physical thing Texas Tech’s offense did came when Mahomes thumped Jared Barber and Barber’s left shoulder popped out again, which is unfortunate. He was replaced by Al-Rasheed Benton, who takes the bait here and, judging by the reaction, knows it. (Side Bad: No comment on the officiating. I don’t understand why the officials didn’t review the previous play, which counted a delay as Barber was helped from the field.)

Good: Retribution
Look who makes the stop here. It’s the very next play. I think Mahomes was a little too happy with his feet, and WVU can take some credit for that. Texas Tech executes what I guess we’ll call a rub play here up top, and you could see it coming when the outside receiver motioned closer to his teammate. The pick concept works, and Mahomes has a target, but he does also have room in the middle that Benton ably covers. (Side Good: Fine, I’ll comment on the officiating: I loved the referee. He was like Pop-Up Video giving us immediate explanations as the action unfolded. Given how screwed up officiating is this season, it’s impressive that 1) he jumped on this as soon as it happened and without 15 minutes spent discussing it in a huddle and 2) Texas Tech wasn’t awarded two points.)

Good: More happy feet
Howard ran a lot. He called his number a bunch — and there were times he would have been better off letting go — but his number was called a lot, too, and, man, if he gets a block from his receiver here this looks even better. (Side Good: I was hard on Shell and Smallwood for their “blocking” against Oklahoma State, but they helped Howard often Saturday, including here. Listen to that!) Texas Tech was letting it happen and didn’t seem clued into what many of you have determined is a tell from open sets. But it wasn’t long after this that the Red Raiders made a fix. If WVU went empty, the defense sent one middle linebacker or both to the gaps where they expected a guard to be pulling to. Typically, they were going to the right side (their left) in anticipation of Adam Pankey sweeping through ahead of Howard.

Good: Pankey
He needs more than a side mention. He wasn’t the reason WVU ran for 300, but he was a very big reason. (I thought Kyle Bosch looked better than he had all season, too.) Watch Pankey eschew the defensive lineman here. Just throws him on the ground, and Smallwood has to hop over the wreckage. That’s rude. Props to Texas Tech for putting two outside linebackers on the same side of the field, too. This was an easy score that was hard to watch. But so, too, was this, because I ask you to watch Cody Clay here. How in the world does an offense load up on the right side and then have its H-back spread out his arms and touch nobody? That’s remarkable. Reminder: The Red Raiders are No. 104 or worse in nine of 14 major statistical rankings.

Good: Someone
WVU threw hardly any deep passes Saturday, and let’s not pretend it had anything to do with the defense. The Red Raiders, as discussed, are not good, and WVU’s running game was quite good, which encouraged Texas Tech to commit safeties to help. There were definitely opportunities to throw deep, but there was the dropped bomb to Durante and, what? Nothing? And speaking of adjustments, I was a fan of Holgorsen’s management and subsequent explanation for the drive at the end of the first half, which produced a field goal that turned out to be really significant. (Side Bad: Timeouting. No clue why Howard spiked the ball on the penultimate play of the half. It was harmless, but it was unnecessary with a timeout on the scoreboard. Things like that are odd to me.)

Bad: And now…
The Skyler Howard Portion of the Program. He’s in the crosshairs this week. Holgorsen was the most pointed he’s been this season after the game, then on the Big 12 conference call Monday at finally at his news conference Tuesday. (Aside: You almost get the feeling he does not like the narrative being written around him. He continues to push back against the words “Air Raid,” the implication he can’t possibly be a coach who runs the ball and the reality this passing offense is mediocre.) He has sustained his careful handling of his quarterback, but saying, rightly, “it’s not supposed to look like that,” is new and accurate and something that just can’t continue. Some of this miss is on David Sills, who’s done just short of nothing the past two games, and he naively slows his route. I’m not sure the throw is so great that it acquits Howard, though. Howard didn’t miss Jovon Durante deep on the sideline later earlier in the game, but he did wildly overthrow Durante on the sideline earlier in the game, that coming four plays after Durante dropped a very simple pass on the first play of the game. The point is Howard isn’t the only one who has to get better.

But he’s getting help, and Ka’Raun White is on his way. I don’t know where he ends up this season. I don’t know that his ascent is different from what we saw and projected for Durante and Sills earlier this season. I do know he looked the part Saturday. He’s good in traffic. He has strong hands. And Howard trusts him, which is why he snaps off this throw.

Five catches and 80 yards is nice, and his arrow is pointing up. In fact, he could have done better, because he’s open here, and Howard instead opts for a substantially more difficult throw to a smaller receiver covered in traffic. It’s hard to pick nits with conversions on third-and-14, but this completion is more exception than norm, and Howard has so far showed a tendency to look for his first option and either pull the trigger or run.

It nearly cost him Saturday.

Stop it at :04, which is when Howard sees something Texas Tech shows and changes to something based on his read — and I will nod my head if you say he checked from a run to a pass; it makes sense. Shelton Gibson is then 1-on-1 with Nigel Bethel. There will be no safety to help him because he’s too shallow and then moving and caught off guard at the snap. Gibson is by Bethel and beyond the safety’s scope, but it happens behind Howard’s back because he’s locked on the right side. Obviously, the throw is not the proper decision, and it created the first time I really wondered if William Crest might be seen warming up on the sideline, but Jordan Thompson bends his route across the middle and takes a safety along for the ride. Stop it at :11. Durante is open in a hole, but he keeps going and the throw has too much air. And maybe this is why Holgorsen is taking the air out of the offense.