WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Iowa State


I had the view. I thought about Baylor, honestly. I glanced over and saw two of our players over there and nobody else. They only had one person back. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to try to cut this back instead of going straight.’ So I looked over, and I started looking straight again like I was running there to bring the DB over. Then I cut it back.”

Shelton Gibson on his 60-yard touchdown

Struggles are like snowflakes. They’re all different. Big or small, they go away. It nevertheless never fails to interest me to see coaches deal with them.

Players have their own way of treating them, and those are unique methods, to be sure, but a lot of it is based on simply acknowledging the issue and insisting it will go away. Coaches don’t ever seem to encounter something for the first time. They’ve seen it before, which means they can sometimes see it coming, and they oftentimes have a way to deal with it.

I’ve been intrigued all season — literally from the preseason to this past Saturday — to watch West Virginia handle Shelton Gibson’s, shall we say, hands. Dana Holgorsen more or less volunteered Gibson’s issue during preseason camp in August.

Then Gibson caught, like, everything early in the season and then mostly disappeared in November. He returned to form against Iowa State — six catches, 148 yards and a touchdown after one catch for not even enough for a first down the prior three games — and everyone wondered what got into him.

The response was again really interesting.

In between, nothing ever really changed. Not the way Gibson’s coaches or quarterbacks talked about him and apparently not the way they treated him. Think of all the change at outside receiver this season. Who’s been the constant presence? And who’s been the person who carries around a football he actually gave a name to? Gibson doesn’t need to be told when there’s a problem, much like he doesn’t need to be told he ought to hang onto passes that hit him in the hands. Holgorsen and receivers coach Lonnie Galloway didn’t waver or even give much ammo to the idea Gibson was in a funk, and both seemed unwavering in their belief he’d do again what he’d done before.

(Aisde: Consider this alongside the way Holgorsen and running backs coach JaJuan Seider goofed on Wendell Smallwood for not scoring touchdowns. Unusual but effective, too.)

I don’t know what it was about Saturday, but Gibson was great again. There was nobody faster on that field, and I think that’s probably been true for a few other games.

There’s a lot involved in a receiver’s big game, but we can agree Skyler Howard didn’t have his best day and the offensive line wasn’t extremely cooperative. Gibson still put up big numbers on a day when you could have understood if he hadn’t. Watch his route on this big gain: Double move. He feigns a play inside, which gets the corner to step in and fall fatally behind, and then he opens up a lot of room to the left for Howard’s throw up the rail. Tidy stuff (and clever, too, when you consider where Iowa State’s safeties hung out for most of the day).

But it wasn’t just the deep stuff — and sometimes it wasn’t the deep stuff at all, because he let some through his fingers and Howard threw too long on others — and Gibson was the only truly reliable receiver with the intermediate passing game. The 60-yard TD wasn’t a long throw. It was a great play because Gibson can make the difficult stuff look easy.

But the opposite is sometimes true, too.

Should he have run through it? That keeps him off the ground, right? If nothing else, he’s worth watching, and he’s trending back to being more than that. How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Iowa State.


I see you. Speaking of …

Bad: Discourse
Can we have a talk about Howard’s right hand? We haven’t seen it for weeks. It’s been on ice, in a hoodie and inside a glove whenever we’ve been allowed around him, but it was on display within the game Saturday, and it was ably doctored. (Update: We saw it Tuesday! Unsheathed. Unbandaged. Unexplained, too, except assurances it’s getting better. We agreed to call it an upper extremity injury.)


The index finger and thumb are taped and connected, and the above picture (click it!) gives you a pretty good look at padding at the base of the thumb and another wrap around the wrist. We can speculate about torn tendons and sprains and dislocations and never know unless someone tells us, but we can agree his right hand was not right.

Good: And yet…
…this was one of the secretly biggest moments of the game. Howard is on the lam and has no idea Trent Taylor is on his heels. Howard’s moving the ball around, and it’s not in the cradle when Taylor strikes. He’s trying to get the ball, and as it happened I was sure that was going to end badly for the Mountaineers. That’s a scoop-and-score, right? That’s a tie ball game, right?

Good: Iowa State defense
I’m sad for Paul Rhoads, because it looks like Iowa State has a solid core for Matt Campbell, but Rhoads will get work when he wants work. I’m sadder for Wally Burnham, because this is probably the end for the colorful defensive coordinator who, you’ll recall, is not a fan of Yankees hats. If the offense was as good as the defense was Saturday, maybe the coaching staff enjoys a different departure. Iowa State’s defense didn’t do a whole lot different, and the number of Howard pass attempts implies WVU was expecting it, but the defense was effective. (Aside: It helped, too, that Iowa State held onto the ball a lot in the first half) WVU had 16 carries and 46 yards in the first half.

How? A Bear front gets some of the credit.

Crowd the line, complicate the blocking, rinse, repeat. The first is a zone play, which leaves a backside defender unblocked. The linebacker makes the play. On the second, WVU again can’t handle the numbers on a counter play, and Iowa State just does a good job making sure left guard Stone Underwood and fullback Eli Wellman aren’t effective.

I could go on and on about the Bear front — it might not make sense, for example, because WVU has Iowa State outnumbered on both snaps, but it’s more complex than just numbers and involves gaps and alignments, too — or you could let Riverside High coach Zach Davis tell you all about why it works against an Air Raid.

Bad: Iowa State offense
Yuck. Sophomore (that’s important) Joel Lanning was completely unreliable, and I thought his receivers were bothered by it — they were open and he kept missing them. What really bugged me was that the Cyclones basically never stretched the field. Allen Lazard is 6-foot-5, Quenton Bundrage is 6-2. D’Vario Montgomery is 6-6, and though he didn’t play, part of the offense was deep balls to big receivers. I counted one against a defense that 1) was stopping Iowa State’s flavor of the day and 2) had its issues against jump balls and long throws this season. That one throw was by the backup quarterback almost as soon as he came into the game.

Iowa State also had a fun little formation that was concentrating WVU’s defense around the line and between the tackles. Press this, but don’t let it play just yet. Look at the defense before the snap. The alignment isn’t (and can’t be) spread out and is close to the ball. Lanning has a running back next to him and then what I guess we’d call tight trips to the right, and that leaves a tall receiver 1-on-1 with Terrell Chestnut on the left. It was like a quadruple option. Lanning could give it to the back or he could keep it. You can press play now. He fakes the give and runs to the right and then passes to the slot receiver. We never saw that again, and Iowa State didn’t try to take advantage of the 1-on-1 nearly enough (and when Lanning tried, it was a short throw and he usually missed). I feel like that could have worked.

Good: WVU defense
To be fair, the Mountaineers had a lot to do with Iowa State’s trouble. Lanning looked confused from start to finish — I suspect he didn’t expect K.J. Dillon to fan out and drop deep on Cover 3 when he’s not one of the three deep — and that’s defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s calling card. But WVU was able to pressure Lanning throughout the game, too, and he started to count the hits. Really, all that the Mountaineer didn’t do right was get off the field in the first half. The Cyclones converted 5 of 10 third downs and two fake punts. That was good for but six points.

After halftime, WVU stopped the first eight third downs, and the only conversion on nine attempts was the Sam B. Richardson jump ball to Lazard, which probably isn’t a coincidence.

This is one of the stops, and Dravon Askew-Henry makes a wonderful downhill play. A free safety can’t do any better short of taking the handoff. That sets up fourth down, and of course, Iowa State was going to go for it. As you see below, the Cyclones fake out everyone and use a traditional formation and play.

Noble Nwachukwu ruins it. Shouldn’t be that easy. The right tackle is supposed to lean on Nwachukwu and keep him from shooting that gap, but Nwachuku is too fast off the ball and otherwise too strong and, again, does everything short of taking the handoff.

You probably not going to believe this, but Iowa State’s offense had been pretty good of late, and though that side looked slipshod Saturday, WVU deserves praise for holding the opponent to a season-low yardage total and just two field goals.

Good: Deep thoughts
Iowa State threw the one deep pass. Kansas, well, Kansas didn’t do much, but it did try to go deep a few times and was discouraged when it did. Texas couldn’t go over the top. Texas Tech couldn’t even do it. So on one hand I’m going to say it’s a shame Iowa State didn’t even try, but on the other hand, WVU’s defending really well. Blitzes are getting home. The line is getting pressure. The coverages, which the defense had to learn to diversify in the absence of pressure when everyone was hurt, seem trickier. I sort of think teams are deciding against going deep … and we haven’t even mentioned the biggest causes. Chestnut and especially Daryl Worley have been very good. Worley Saturday was at his best defending the pass, making tackles and getting around blocks to chop down short pass plays. Remember, this is the same player Gibson had to sit at Baylor, except he’s not the same at all.

Good: Debate
Not sure who had the best game on defense. Worley was very good. Shaq Petteway was very good. Jeremy Tyler was always in the right place at the right time. I’d have to go with Kyle Rose, though. He’s on some kind of a role, and, as you see above, he makes plays when he doesn’t make plays. We talked way back in August about the game he and Jared Barber play against the run, and this play is a really good look at it. He takes two defenders here, and it gives Barber a runway for a TFL. This happened a lot, and things like this more than his three tackles proved his value during a strong day for the defense.

Oh! And Rose had yet another sack while getting blocked in the back, even though the official saw fit not to see it. It’s like the guy’s been reading!

(Aside: I wrote that Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, Rose and Petteway won the team’s defensive player of the week award. Cody Clay was the player of the week for the offense.)


Bad: This was pass was intercepted
Not by No. 25, either. I’m not sure how this happened, but the safety out of view to the left catches up to and then picks off the pass. (Side Good: It’s a terrific play by the safety, Qujuan Floyd.) Howard by now should be able to use the field better and give Jordan Thompson a chance to make this happen.

Except he missed the same play earlier in the game.

I’m not sure Floyd wouldn’t have intercepted this pass if it hadn’t first been deflected by the linebacker. But on both plays, Howard has room to use to let the slot receiver run under it. The throw isn’t right.

That performance was not a step forward for Howard. He’s made strides during the winning streak, but this was a reversion performance. Maybe it was the competition. Maybe it was the weather. Some of it could be his hand, and Holgorsen even admitted Tuesday that his quarterback “doesn’t have as much zip on the ball, and there is a reason for that.” He didn’t seem comfortable and confident. He wasn’t making plays he’d been making, and he didn’t try to make plays like this one to Rushel Shell that he saw and holstered. This throw was short, but that may have been his hand. This throw is probably more a matter of wonky footwork. (Aside: Honestly, the receivers might have been in the wrong place or could have done more to come back on their routes, for all we know. And lately Holgorsen has often said receivers need to be in the right spots.)

Howard was mad at himself for not keeping on this play, too. Watch No. 30. He never considers Howard, and the difference between a give and a keep is a turnover on downs and a 42-yard touchdown. Everything felt bumpy, just a tick off, up to and including this botch, when Shell is on the other side of Howard’s fake, and Howard improvises and wallops a safety who graduated from Holgorsen’s high school.

But then it all changed when Howard homered in the third quarter.

A few things to watch.

  • The formation. The stacked receivers pulled the safeties over and widened the middle of the field. This addressed Iowa State’s desire to load the box and worked throughout the game.
  • Center Tyler Orlosky. He quickly derails the defender across from him and then pivots left and makes sure the second defender doesn’t slip through and get after Howard. That’s important for the next part.
  • Left guard Stone Underwood. It’s not easy to make that block on the move in the open field. It looked easy.

The Mountaineers were fine after that. They ran for 82 yards on that drive and had just 54 before that. They seemed to know a two-score cushion would be enough with their defense and against the Cyclones offense. After a big start, they loitered and plodded and finally something big popped. That’s been a little like the arc of the season, and maybe that’s Howard’s legacy in 2015, too.

P.S. This might me the last one of these this season. I doubt I can get next week’s done with my travel (there’s a basketball game Tuesday) and the vacation days I need to take. Seems bizarre to run a G&B 10 days after a game. I feel like four days is a stretch. We don’t know the bowl yet, but there’s basketball crammed around both the Dec. 29 and Jan. 2 bowl dates. I feel like I’ve done a disservice to a ranked basketball team thus far this season, and while much of it is out of my control, I have the ability to take control of that soon.

So if this is the end this season — and beyond, because I never know if I have it in me to do this 13 times a season — let me say thanks. A number of you have helped or offered to help me this year and through the years. Your clicks, comments and efforts to share this with others is appreciated. Most of all, I ask that you try to guesstimate my gratitude that you made this a place I can do something like the G&B, and then multiply that by about 100.