WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Texas

I said this in the game post: That play was breathtaking. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and Skyler Howard’s airborne shoe doesn’t look pretty, but that’s all beside my point. It was very exciting to watch, and if we’re being honest, West Virginia’s offense hasn’t been invigorating lately.

But this was happening before the snap. Texas lines up and Howard goes to work on what he sees, which is what he ultimately gets. The Longhorns are in a 3-3-5 — Charlie Strong helped pioneer that, too — and they’re going to spin the safety at bottom of the screen close to the line and drop the safety at the top to the deep middle. It’s basically a two-man route. There are three receivers, but Daikiel Shorts, in the slot, widens out to bring a defender with him. The playaction brings the bottom safety closer to the line. The wide receivers are 1-on-1 with cornerbacks, and WVU will continue to like its changes when No. 1 and No. 5 are asked to outrun cornerbacks.

Pause it at :12. Howard is out of the playaction, and that safety hits the breaks, but he’s a non-factor. Shorts has hooked his defender. There are eight Texas players accounted for. Gibson and Durante are running at the cornerbacks and you see the shadow of the deep safety, who is just out of the picture. He has to cover way too much ground to make a play on either receiver. It seems like Howard reads him and knows he has the throw.

This is September WVU and September Howard. It’s Good.

But really, why was it so good? It was dramatic, and the television does the drama no justice. From where I was sitting, I could see Howard lock on Durante and I could see Durante was going to get by the cornerback. And then the throw went out and I could see the thousands of fans with at least a similar vantage point behind the play or in front of it rise to their feet. They didn’t see exactly what I saw, because we all have different seats and angles, but they all saw the potential outcome, and they got ready for it.

That was a really, really cool visual.

The ball was up in the air for a long time and at least some of that excitement transitioned into anxiety because, you have to think, recent memories filled the heads of the onlookers. That was Durante on the other end of the throw, a throw from a quarterback who hasn’t always hammered the nail of these plays. But it worked, even as the safety tried to recover and stop it. The crowd erupted and the WVU sideline went wild.

It was like a whole lot of angst left the stadium. If only we had a better look at this and a way to fully appreciate the sight and sounds.


I thought it was fun to see Durante’s teammates, head coach and then receivers coach find Durante as he found his way to the sideline. That kid’s had a rough go of it, and all of those people wanted to see him get out of it because they knew him to be better than what had happened. He had some nationally televised mistakes, and there’s no hiding from those things, especially when they come during a time when so many people are looking for things to point at. The only way to get over those errors is to make the play you hadn’t made, and Durante wasn’t doing it.

I still think he’s going to be a major player for the Mountaineers. Again, I’ve never experienced people volunteering the promise they have for a player quite as convincingly as they did for Durante in the preseason. His productivity slipped, but the confidence the Mountaineers had in him never waned. Honestly, we see players come and go, pop and fizzle, and there’s too much soup-of-the-day reporting around here to entirely trust who’s real and who’s just here, but I always felt like Durante had staying power if only because the people around him were so consistently sincere in their belief he’d be all right.

This is not to say one play validates anything, although it’s just as proper to say two bad games shouldn’t debunk everything, but I sensed relief that Durante did what he did, not because people wondered if he had it in him, but because they wondered if Durante remembered.

Confidence is so fickle, especially with freshmen who are encountering so many things for the first time and are prone to panic about stuff they’ll later learn to handle. It’s a long season, which is bad and good. Too many people produce reactions and treat them like regulations, but things change and should be allowed to change, and, lo, the Mountaineers have a winning streak that’s brought them to 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big 12. How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Texas.


Good: Speaking of!
Really good the past two games. Look, Daryl Worley had problems against Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU, but were his problems jump balls, confidence and execution or were the problems Marcell Ateman, Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson? (Aside: Two Biletnikoff semifinalists in there, and I didn’t even mention Sterling Shepard.) It’s not one or the other. One affects and/or is affected by the other. He was down, but I thought he turned it around when Terrell Chestnut was knocked out of the Baylor game and Worley had to play a position he’s not used to. He did well afterward in that game, and it was Chestnut who had the more significant problems against Doctson 11 days later. There was nothing in the form of shame in either of the last two games. He’s an accountable guy. He’s going to take it upon himself to fix what’s wrong, and by the looks of it, he has. The interception was big. The fumble recovery was big. He’s around the ball a lot, either when it’s aimed at him or when he rallies to a play to help. That’s something players are taught, but you still have to want to do it, and Worley and Chestnut as both pretty good at that as it relates to cornerbacks.

Good: Luck
Prior to this, Texas had snapped a ball to no one in particular and experienced the good fortune of the right guard booting it back to the quarterback. The same quarterback made a bad throw up the seam to a slot receiver that was tipped and somehow not intercepted. Bending, bending, bending, right? You remembered Texas had lived the good life for an entire season, and you figured something had to give. I want to mention this one last time to reinforce the point: This play is the first time Jon Gray, D’Onta Freeman or Tyrone Swoopes had fumbled all season. Not lost a fumble. Fumbled. (Side Good: Good for Barber. He’s playing hurt and still leading with his balky shoulder and doing stuff like this against the team he was playing when he blew out his knee two years ago. He cares, and he got a pretty nifty memory out of it. Second Side Good: Did you see Chestnut out there? He was hitting quarterbacks and running backs on the sideline as they tried to get out of bounds. He could have let them step out or he could have pushed them out. He was bodying up and hitting them — legally — because he could. And he’s not healthy. He’s doing this with a bad shoulder, knowing he’s one hit away from the end. But he’s not backing down at all. Those two are nails.)

Good: R-o-l-a-i-d-s
We mentioned the relief that came from the Durante touchdown. Barber’s score was no less exhale-worthy. It put points on the board. It jolted the offense. It gave the defense a lift on a day it certainly needed one. Think the Mountaineers wanted it? They had guys storming the field to celebrate, to the point Wendell Smallwood was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his role in things. Despite the habit Texas established for not turning the ball over, WVU really thought it was going to get three turnovers. Turns out that goal, ambitious as it was, was two shy of reality.

Good: Here it comes
So, these guys are good. The punt and kickoff teams are good. They make plays. They shape the game. I feel lighter having said that. I’ve resisted. I’ve examined my longstanding opinions and questioned whether I was biased one way or another. But two things happened Saturday that convinced me I had to make a change:

1) I needed a cup of coffee at the end of the first quarter and couldn’t go because I was posting an update on Twitter and checking something online. Time ran out, but WVU was about to punt … and it was then when I went to the carafe. I never miss a special teams play because, as you know, I think anything can happen when WVU does a special teams thing. And I missed this. I think that haunted me. Did I actually miss a good thing? Had a I subconsciously convinced myself disasters weren’t imminent?

2) Later in the second quarter, I did not need a cup of coffee, but because I’d needed coffee before, I still needed to leave my seat for a moment. I wouldn’t do it because I thought I might miss something … and I realized I wanted to see WVU’s special teams in action. So I didn’t miss this, because you can’t take your eyes off special teams. How long ago was it when you shielded your eyes? And you better believe your much-anticipated Khairi Sharif feature is on the damn way. #FreeKhari

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Good: More growth
This is from WVU’s penultimate drive, immediately after Nick Kwiatkoski’s interception and the possession that featured a scary moment for left guard Adam Pankey and ended with Howard’s 2-yard run. Eight plays, 48 yards and no passes. WVU threw zero passes in the fourth quarter, and let’s be clear: Texas gave the Mountaineers a few opportunities to check out of a rn and into a pass, and Howard did not do it. The first play is more straight-up than the others, and Texas doesn’t completely crowd the line, but the receivers have room. You know what? It’s early in the drive and late in the game and Texas hasn’t stopped anything on the ground, so, sure run it. Bank 19 yards. The second play sees the nickel back in the slot darting forward. If he blitzes, there’s going to be room right there for a (big) pass play. He didn’t blitz. WVU ran right. Banked 5 yards. The third play is the one on which the Longhorns really loaded up to stop the run and dared WVU to pass — eight in the box, press coverage up top, cushions on the bottom — and Wendell Smallwood ran and nearly scored.

Good: Dana
“Whatever you’ve got to do to win is what I’m resigned to do. I could have been worried about stats and done some things to screw that game up pretty easily last week. The last two weeks I could have done that.” 

Bad: Run defense
WVU’s rush defense is No. 92 in yards per game and No. 86 in yards per carry after Texas went for 277 yards and 5.12 per attempt. Everything goes wrong here — Christian Brown goes backward and impedes Shaq Petteway, but Texas does its job to match up and then out-man WVU — and though this play skews the numbers, this play happened and Foreman is a home run-hitter. You go into a game saying you can’t let him do this, because this is what he does.

Anyhow, the turnovers were enormous, because Texas pushed WVU around throughout the game. Consider Worley’s interception was at the goal line. Kwiatkoski’s forced fumble came on a snap that started at WVU’s 25-yard line. Barber’s fumble recovery came near midfield. Texas moved the ball. Texas had manageable third downs. A lot of that came about because of the run game, whether in traditional fashion or in the 18 Wheeler package that, to be honest, I did not think would work like that against WVU. But Swoopes, who I stared at on the field before the game because he’s massive, is good at that, and the offensive line has some pieces that can grow up to cause problems. They started two true freshman, blue-chip tackles, and WVU walked away really, really impressed with right tackle Patrick Vahe. The Longhorns caused problems on the ground. The run blocking wasn’t necessarily straight ahead, though there were lead blocks, but rather side-to-side. Sometimes the entire line leaned one way. Sometimes a lineman pulled out of his position to lead the way. Either way, stretching out WVU’s defensive line, getting it to step out of position with counter action or pulling guards let Texas put its bodies on WVU’s bodies and create space. Can the rest of the opposition do that? Hard to say, though Iowa State has a very good running back (who is a freshman and may be slowing down) and Kansas State is going to do what it does. But opponents are inclined to try.

Bad: Texas
Credit WVU for creating the turnovers, but remember Texas had a hand in them. And Texas committed some killer penalties. This one cost them points. Other ones elongated drives, and we’re clear Texas isn’t a team you can ask to do something 12 or 15 times and expect not to screw up … because that didn’t happen Saturday and hasn’t happened often enough this season. I thought the Longhorns had a weapon in John Burt, and he found some room on a 35-yard pass on third down in the first quarter. Seemed ominous, no, given WVU’s concerns with the secondary and its obvious focus on the run? That was his only catch. They are, quite likely, not going to be in a bowl game this season, which is a step backward from Strong’s first season and wholly unacceptable there. It’s an interesting time, and people I’ve talked to (Look at me!) say Strong isn’t cozy with the expectations, the fans and the media … and I nodded my head because we remember that he at times had problems with one, some or all of them when he was at Louisville. Louisville is not Texas. There are people who think he’d take a look at the Miami job and … oh, man, can you imagine that? (Wrote that Monday, a day before Bruce Feldman blew on the fire.)

Good: Texas?
As weird as the offensive approach looks when you consider it’s not only Texas but that there are hundreds of high school quarterbacks in the state who run spread offenses that are so sophisticated that head coaches and offensive coordinators are routinely plucked by colleges, consider again that Texas did move the ball. Patiently. Prudently. It did happen. It was oftentimes derailed, though, and this was the one time the Longhorns really did stay out of their own way. It was a 15-play, 80-yard drive. Clean. No penalties. They overcame three plays that didn’t gain yards and third-and-4, 6, 8 and 4 to get into the end zone. Even had a plan here, and a rub play gives Daje Johnson all the room he needs to get open and avail himself for a pass from Jerrod Heard. This was maybe the one time in the game when you thought Texas posed a threat. WVU then went three-and-out, and Shorts had that weird play where he ran a 2-yard route on third-and-3 and got blistered by Holgorsen. But WVU’s defense stood up and got the ball back and, well, Shorts more than acquitted himself.

Good: Tempo
This is a tougher-than-it-needed-to-be catch on third down, and Shorts was mad afterward that he didn’t catch that in stride and keep running through the secondary, but he said he didn’t see the ball until it was on him. I’ll believe him, because that guy doesn’t make any excuses. But watch what happens afterward. We’re between the third and fourth snaps of this drive. WVU doesn’t sub. Texas was in a 3-3-5 and decided to sub from the far side of the field and bring in a defensive lineman for a defensive back. Holgorsen and Howard see it and pounce, and Smallwood has an acre on the right side while Texas has 12 players on the field.

Good: Three plays later
Shorts gets the yardage right on this one, and here’s a fun stat: He has seven touchdowns in his career. He has zero yards after the catch on his touchdown receptions. Each one was in the end zone. (Aside: This is not Bolivian. Corner route. The throw and the catch are as good as you’ll get, though.)

Good: Elucky?
I have no idea what Howard is doing here, but it’s fun to see him play this like he did. Anyhow, Eli Wellman was great. He cleared holes and walled off defenders either at the line or at the second level. He scored a touchdown, and teammates were ready to mob him when he come off the field and to the sideline, and they were willing to wait because he’s on the PAT team. WVU made a cheeky little alteration to its run game and took many of the plays that used three receivers, a tight end and a running back and decided to take the tight end off the line and play him in the backfield as a fullback. More briefly, WVU subbed Cody Clay for Wellman. I like words. But it gave WVU a more direct, more physical way to deal with the Texas front, and darn if it didn’t work. But watch this play: Does Wellman flinch and play it off like nothing happened? I thought he’d get a flag for a false start, but he made it seem like he was doing something harmless and perfectly legal. Savvy!

Good: The rose in bloom smells like perfume…
This is an inconsequential penalty, though I suppose you can talk amongst yourselves about discipline. But have you ever seen a nose guard draw a flag for getting blocked in the back chasing down a screen pass 17 yards from where he started his recovery? (Aside: Watch WVU before the snap. I wrote about this last week, but with their hands forced, the Mountaineers have shown ways to be even craftier on defense. There’s no pre-snap tell there, especially on third down. It doesn’t always work, and WVU allowed 9 conversions on 18 third downs, the worst number of the year, but, again, a lot of it was short-yardage stuff. When it’s longer, WVU is better, as most defenses are, but WVU is also trickier now because it doesn’t have many other options.)

Bad: Gator arms
That said, the defenders aren’t going anywhere. WVU blitze amid disguises. Barber and Chestnut are still hitting people. Rose is running down screens. Look how mad Petteway is that he couldn’t bury Armanti Foreman on this play. Neither effort nor want-to have been the problems for this group.

Good: Noblility
Three sacks. That’s happened nine other times in school history. He’s got 6 1/2 for the season, and for the second straight week a second-half sack derailed a red zone possession that ended with a field goal.

Good: Kwiatkoski
He’s having an all-Big 12 kind of season, and though he could be there at the end, I’m not sure he will. He’s ninth in tackles and seventh in tackles for a loss among Big 12 linebackers and he has but one sack because he doesn’t blitz much — and when he does, this happens … sacks are overrated, though it seems like blitz pickup is, too — but opponents arch their brows when they see him on film and on the field, especially now that Karl Joseph is out. We’ll see how he finishes, but he’s, what, second-team at worst? He’s made himself into a really good college player. This play is incredible, really, but I do think his forced fumble was a bigger part of the game. It ended a drive that was going to end in points, and the way things were going, probably seven and not three.

Good: Halftime!
Kwiatkoski’s forced fumble got the ball back for the offense, and Holgorsen had an end-of-the-half decision to make for the third straight week. He got points for a second straight week, this time with the touchdown pass to Durante, but it originates with what happens to start the drive. A handoff to Smallwood is basically WVU’s best play now, and here’s another reason why. Gained yards, moved the chains, stopped the clock and got the offense closer to a place that made Holgorsen think, “We could maybe score here.” He’d run two more times, and on the fourth play of the drive and with Texas understandably prepared for a run, Howard play-faked before the pass to Durante. Everything matters.