WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Missouri

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Another game, another depth chart, and you’ll note only a few changes. I want to keep pointing this out, because even with the roster turnover from one year to the next as well as the injuries and suspensions, West Virginia has dealt with only a few personnel-related surprises. Since before they got started (in the spring, even), the Mountaineer have circled certain players and expected them to handle certain roles, and it’s generally gone as planned. When they deal with an injury or a suspension, they prescribe the same practice and are rewarded the same way. That continues to be good news for the Mountaineers, and remember that a week ago Dana Holgorsen said he expected to make many changes to the depth chart between the first and second games, just because he’d learn a lot about the players during the first. Maybe they already knew much of what they needed to know?

Defensively, all that really matters is Xavier Preston is the backup Sam linebacker now. That nudges Zach Sandwisch out of the two-deep, which is not a surprise. The true freshman did play Saturday, though not a lot. He’ll focus on special teams now while trying to carve out a few plays here and there on defense. That won’t be easy, but Preston’s not going to have an easy time getting on the field, either. Justin Arndt answered a lot of questions, did he not?

Offensively, I tried to write about tight ends last week, and the one thing that stood out was WVU only had four. I checked on that a few times. I asked Joe Wickline, the offensive coordinator who works with the offensive tackles as well as the tight ends and H-backs, who he had. “It seems sort of thin. Who do you have?” Something like that. He ambiguously replied along the lines of having who he had, and I realized that was on me. So then I reeled off the names — Stone Wolfley, Trevon Wesco, Mike Ferns and Elijah Wellman — and Wickline said those are the only names he was aware of.

No offense to Rob Dowdy, but he’s not a secret weapon. This is not 2012 and Holgorsen isn’t secretly moving Tavon Austin to running back for the Oklahoma game. I’ll assume Dowdy, who did spend some time at tight end in the spring, was probably given a new jersey sometime during the week and after my intense inquisition. And now he’s the starter, but I’m going to also assume he’s in that role so he can block in one-tight end sets, should the Mountaineers use them, and Dowdy and Wolfey would be in two-tight end sets, when WVU is more likely to throw a pass to a tight end, though we’re probably a good distance from there.

But let’s talk about quarterbacks. It’s what we do, no? We had a few questions for the first week, and the best ones seemed to revolve around the quarterback(s). Could Skyler Howard hit the short passes? How’s his poise? Will he run as much? Who’s the first backup?

Yes. Improved. Apparently. William Crest.

Now, though, Chris Chugunov is the backup. There is no “or” binding Chugunov and Crest, as there was before the opener. Are we making a meal out of that? Possibly. But we know Howard has sore ribs/rib cartilage. That’s going to stick with him for a while. But WVU is going to ask him to stand back in the pocket and wing it — behind a redshirt freshman left tackle — and WVU is going to ask Howard to run the ball. Howard has never packed a white flag in his duffel bag. He doesn’t slide. He wants that extra half-a-yard when he’s on the run. He’ll wait that extra half-a-second when he’s throwing a pass. To change that — the way he plays, the plays he runs — is to waste time, so, yeah, the backup quarterback is probably going to play. Holgorsen said that Saturday afternoon. “… the truth of the matter is that we’re going to get to that second guy a good bit.” (Then again, he’s coaching The Most Injured Team in America, so maybe he’s just projecting.)

What’s notable about this new distinction is that Crest and Chugunov made major errors Saturday, and Holgorsen was so mad at Chugunov.

sideye

 

This was, like, five minutes after Chugunov’s turnover. He threw an interception, Missouri celebrated and swapped its defense with its offense, the offense ran a play and then the head coach called a timeout. Holgorsen isn’t just fuming, either. He’s submitting his bust for the side-eye Mount Rushmore. And Chugunov is the backup! How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Missouri. (New request this year: Share this with the world, please.)

Bad: Beginnings
Here’s Kennedy McKoy’s college debut. It does not go well. Not for him. Certainly not for Howard. And by extension, not for Crest and Chugunov. That’s a long line of rubble for one snap, but McKoy’s career begins with him confusing the play called on the field with the one in his head. (Aside: Crawford flinches before the snap. Could have been a false start, and that would have been a better outcome.) Howard gets a knee right under the rib cage, where the flak jacket can’t protect him too much. It protects strikes from the outside. This one comes from down under, and the cartilage probably doesn’t like that. But that knee strike seems subtle, and at first I thought a blow to the head was what we needed to worry about there. A couple of players even said after the game that Howard couldn’t call a play in the huddle and that he needed to know the score before he came back into the game.

Turns out it was none of the above (allegedly, and you’re free to believe what you want to believe). Howard said he has a “strain” — a “shift” according to Holgorsen — and Howard could even explain away the concerns about a concussion.

“I couldn’t talk in the huddle,” he said. “I got up before I went back down and I got in the huddle and I was trying to make a play call, but nothing was coming out. I couldn’t really breathe.”

Halftime was a blur but only because it was eventful. He was hurried off the field with 2:22 left in the first half and was checked out on the sideline before heading to the locker room for further evaluation. Howard said he was on his way to the locker room when backup William Crest lost a fumble, but he wasn’t with the team during halftime.

“I kind of forgot it was halftime,” he said. “I was telling everybody, ‘Come on now, if these things aren’t broken, let’s get me back out there.’ I wasn’t aware we had halftime. I was ready to get back out there.

“Then I look to my left — I’m about to get an X-ray — and I look to my left and my mom’s right there. I don’t know how she got down there. But the panic in her eyes, and I’m like, ‘Mom, how’d you get down here?’ ”

Still, he was hurt and he still hurts. Watch the play. Howard knows he wasn’t hit hard, and he isn’t anticipating much pain, but it washes over him and pulls him down to the turf. Sort of crazy, though, that Howard can imitate a helicopter and get up and clap at an opponent and show no ill effects, but an awkward reach or twist on a fake knocked him to a knee.

The scene on the sideline was pretty entertaining. Crest and Chugunov both started throwing, and not to one another. Each had a receiver to the side, so I’m not sure they were sure who was going into the game. Crest gets the call, and he runs on second down. Then comes third down …

… and Crest checks before the snap. A lot of people want to say Crest checked from a run to a pass. Perhaps. But the corner on Ka’Raun White is deep, and Crest sends White a signal before the snap. Maybe this was originally a hitch at the sticks and Crest switched to something different, because White goes deep. I think that has some merit — Crest was suppose to throw the hitch or run the ball but decided to change the play. Whatever the plan, there was nothing there during the play, and Crest can’t keep the frame on the picture. He locks on White and misses Daikiel Shorts in front of him. Once he starts moving in the pocket, he should probably just take off and see what happens, but he sees White and decides to give it a shot.

 

Poor Crest. You knew this would become a Thing.

Anyhow, Holgorsen wasn’t having that, so after the defense stands up and a field goal misses badly, (Aside: Missouri’s Tucker McCann is a big-time talent.) Chugunov comes onto the field. There are 60 seconds left in the game, and given that WVU lost one quarterback to strained ribs and another to a blooper, it stands to reason the Mountaineers want to take two knees and get to the locker room. Chugunov’s first play is a run. Rushel Shell is tackled, and the whistle blows with 53 seconds to go. There’s some chatter and some motioning and heads are turning to and from the sideline and the semi-huddle, and all of that ends with Chugunov throwing to White but also in the direction of another teammate and four defenders. Understanding Chugunov snapped the ball with 15 seconds to go and witnessing the reaction from Holgorsen, it’s fair to assume this was supposed to be a run all along.

But when WVU went to the bench late in the game so Howard could rest, Holgorsen pointed to Chugunov. We probably have to wonder if WVU trusts Crest right now.

Good: Skyler Howard
The statistics are not winning awards in the locker room, never mind the Big 12 or the NCAA, but Howard completed 65.7 percent of his passes. He only did better twice before that — 10-for-12 against Texas, 21-for-26 against Liberty last season — and we have two explanations.

  1. Virtually no deep passes. I had him as 0-for-3 with an interception (plus two pass interference calls) when he tried to go deep. Missouri took that away from the offense, and with the exception of the interception, when he was frustrated and didn’t get a ton of help from the receiver, Howard took what was there.
  2. Accuracy. There were some iffy decisions and some shaky throws, but there weren’t many of the former and I thought the latter were in the second half. Howard was 12-for-18 pre-ribs and 11-for-17 afterward. There’s virtually no difference there, but his throws in the second half were, as you can imagine, less emphatic. When he was right, he was right. The throw above is 37 yards, and it’s on a line to where it had to be. Well, it’s a few yards short of the first down, but he put it in play and got it to a receiver who will always push for the extra yards. And look at it. It’s sharp. He didn’t have that all the time last year, and, sure, he will miss like throws from time to time, but if you see this throw and you see the one above, you feel optimistic about the misses.

Good: Pocket
The pocket was wide enough for just about the entire game. Missouri, believe it or not, didn’t sack any of WVU’s quarterbacks. There were some close calls, and here’s one occasion when defensive end Charles Harris does get the better of Colton McKivitz. Mean little spin move, but he still has some ground to cover, and Howard feels it, but he doesn’t bail. Throws a strike to Shorts in a tight spot, and it would have been easy and maybe even expected for this throw to sail high or to the right. Either would have been troublesome, but Howard kept his feet beneath his shoulders and made a simple play look simple.

Now this was arguably his worst decision of the day. He has Shelton Gibson early in the play, but he waits a second and goes high over the middle, which is dangerous for the receiver and for possession. Just bad timing compounded by a bad decision, but this was the one time he really put anyone or anything in peril. (Side Bad: Didn’t feel like the timing or the comfort was there between Howard and Jovon Durante. There was one weak throw to Durante in the second half, too, when the ball was a step behind a receiver who had two steps on his defender. They might need some more time, because Howard-to-Shorts looks crisp. Also, Durante played a bunch of Y behind Shorts, which is good to know.)

And before you think this sort of throw is a habit …

… check this out. Virtually the same play, and watch Howard crisply flip through the fake, the feet and the flick. It’s in his bag. The difference between the first and the second is Howard bounces more in the pocket on the first than on the second. If he applies the mechanism of the second to the first, it’s probably a positive play, too.

Bad: Red zone offense
The red zone defense was great, but let’s understand why. The Mountaineers are pretty good at setting a line and protecting it. They work with the goal line so that they can see and stop everything in front of them and also use the sidelines, the end line and the 10 vertical yards in the end zone as teammates for what’s behind them. They load up the box and then pollute passing windows. Missouri really didn’t stray too far from its base defense when the Mountaineers got into the red zone. What was the base? Rely on the line and linebackers to win up front and play loose in the secondary so nothing goes over the top. Do that in a cramped space — often with an extra defensive lineman, who’s going to be better than the fifth guy on most defensive lines — and you’re going to defend the run with numbers in a small space and you’re going to create tight openings for the pass in the same small space. It’s not easy. WVU can make it look hard, but it’s not easy.

(Aside: Holgorsen said he Tuesday he wants to score touchdowns on half of his red zone possessions. Either he misspoke or he reset the conversation. Fifty percent is not going to cut it. I think Tony Gibson would take allowing touchdowns half the time he defends the red zone. Scoring touchdowns half the time will put you near the bottom of the national standings. But if WVU goes from 20 percent to 50 percent, and then from 50 to, say, 60, hey, great coaching!

What went wrong Saturday? Let’s look at a few items.

  1. This is a bad throw to the right guy. The defender across from the receiver is deep, so the receiver has time and room to work with, but not a lot of each. Still, Howard’s throw is off. (Pause it at :02, just when Howard releases. Three defensive backs with their feet on the goal line. You keep it in front of you.)
  2. This is a quarterback power play, but it’s 10 in the box against seven on the line. Now, those seven need to create gaps so the two in the backfield with Howard can come through and exploit that space. But when your tight end (Dowdy on the left side … on the first snap of his career) crams it up inside and collides with the pulling right guard, and then a running back in front of Howard bumps into the right guard, you’re finished.
  3. This could have been a touchdown. Pause it at :02. There are three receivers on the right and three defenders with the receivers, plus a safety over top. If Shorts, Durante and White get their blocks, (Side Good: Shorts and White can really block.) Crawford is running at a safety, and you like your chances. White and Shorts block their receivers, but Durante gets rolled backward, and that play is spoiled.
  4. This, I don’t think, is an awful throw. I do think it was a run-pass option, judging by Crawford’s reaction, and Howard maybe wants this one back. As for the throw, the timing is a hair off, but that ball is in a decent spot. It need a little more air, but you’re really doing this with a blindfold, banking on repetition and trust. We can dissect this — Did Howard need another step? Did Shorts waste a step at the snap? Was either certain this would or should have been a pass? — but the point is it was close.
  5. This was bad. But almost everything works perfect. It’s a switch route, and those can spook defensive backs in the red zone. You see something fast, and you want to jump on it to keep it out of the end zone. The inside receiver breaks outside, and when he does, the safety is going to go get him, as is his duty. He knows the cornerback is chasing the outside receiver, and that will clear space for the inside receiver moving outside. But that also creates a 1-on-1 between the cornerback and the outside receiver. Sometimes, it’s even better. A cornerback  will check his blind spots, and in a situation like this, h’ll see a second receiver break and a quarterback prepare a pass, so he reacts to that, too. At worst, Howard will have White 1-on-1 with a corner, but here the corner went for the short route, and Howard just whiffs on a touchdown pass.

That’s five plays, and that’s the problem. Something went wrong on five snaps. (Three were throws, and they have something in common.) Were the Mountaineers close? Sure. Does that count? Nope. Nope. Life is different down there, and the margins are small. Consider this from offensive line coach Ron Crook as he describes the way run blocking changes on the goal line:

“When it’s first-and-10 on the 40-yard line, we’re trying to get into you and create movement down the field and stay on our feet and finish blocks down the field. On the goal line, we’re worried about getting on you and moving you in any direction just to create a little crease. We’re not trying to gain 4 or 5 yards. We’re trying to gain a yard and create a little crease to let him hit it. You target differently. You don’t have to block as much of a person. You just have to seal them one way or another.”

Good: Segue!
A special thanks to Colton McKivitz for getting me out of the red zone mine field, where I invariably get myself into trouble. But watch the left tackle here. Look, you can live or die on the thin margin. It looks like he loses on this play, but he hangs around and essentially shields Harris from making the play. This doesn’t work on first-and-10 at the 40. It works here. And while we’re here, how about West Virginia’s offensive line? You know what you’re going to get out of Tyler Orlosky. (Aside: Most of the time! So glad they made up immediately after this!) I think there’s similar security with Kyle Bosch and now Marcell Lazard, who’s been pretty good from the start of camp until now. But what was supposed to be a very good offensive line had two new parts Saturday. I thought Yodny Cajuste looked excellent in his time at left tackle against Harris, but McKivitz didn’t have many meaningful problems, and Harris is good enough to make a left tackle look this silly. Tony Matteo was good enough at left guard to hang onto his starting spot ahead of the returning Adam Pankey.

Check out McKivitz here. This is an extraordinary play for a guy in his first series. Missouri was active up front with twists and stunts and the like, and this action is supposed to shake McKivitz. Look at him! He steps back and slides over, and it’s so smooth. (It’s also with Matteo, so we can assume Crook did a nice job coaching them up on Missouri’s misdirection.) He never loses Harris, and then he blocks him out of the play. On top of it all, this is the stick/draw. The linemen don’t know if it’s a run or a pass. They’re supposed to run block for a draw play, but McKivitz can’t know where Rushel Shell is, and he can’t be used to shadowing a guy like Harris in the middle of the field. He’s even celebrating when Shell is at the 10 with people on his heels, but McKivitz knows. I really liked this, in case you couldn’t tell.

Good: Stick/draw
If you don’t know what that is, check it out above. Read about it here. Stick/draw for life.

Good: Whistles
Don’t you love the replay official? WVU isn’t entirely unlucky. Just very unlucky.

Good: Tier 4 Lab
I was watching the game live and thinking about this, and then I was watching it again and remembered thinking about it. But remember the stacked receivers set? We saw it in the bowl game, and it was wildly successful. Holgorsen used it again Saturday, and it was killing the Tigers. I accidentally closed-without-saving the document that was keeping track of it, but apart from one short gain on a pass play, which asks a lot of Justin Crawford to block and not commit holding or OPI, every snap gained at least 4 yards.

Why? Well, for starters, you can throw quick screens to fast receivers who have an immediate blocker. You also keep cornerbacks from locking up receivers at the line of scrimmage.

A running back or an inside receiver is always going to be the top receiver, because WVU wants to get a free release for an outside receiver. That means the cornerback covering the outside receiver will always start deep. If you can’t bump and re-route Gibson and White and you have to start defending extra space from a depth, good luck.

The second appeal is even more obvious: Space.

 

Essentially the same spot on the field, but look at what the stacks do. They draw defenders out of the box, and that puts those defenders into uncomfortable positions in which they are in conflict. The stacks and the space also create alleys for backs to run the ball or receivers running routes to catch passes. WVU wants to get the ball to playmakers in space. WVU likes that second look.

So Holgorsen decides in the third quarter to employ the stacks, and the plan is working. Then the offense gets into the red zone and reverts.

why

 

I guess my question is, “Why would’t the stack formation work in the red zone?” I feel like you’re pulling defenders from the box, which opens things for the run. If the defense continues to load the box, you’ve manufactured advantages outside. If they play it down down the middle, you’ve at least created odd angles and openings for receiver routes, and those are valuable when the defense has the space on its side near the back of the end zone. I suppose the fade route is out of the question, and WVU likes those plays when the look is to its advantage, but that seems like a small sacrifice, especially when you appear to have so many possibilities at your disposal. Plus, red zone results notwithstanding — a hard thing to overlook — what do you trust more right now? Four receivers and a back (or three receivers plus Crawford with Wellman in the backfield), the diamond or a two-tight end set? I’m officially curious.

Good: Debuts
We’re going to be here a while, because we have so many players and, by and large, so many good things to discuss. McKoy and Chugunov did not get the memories they wanted, but they were among 19 first-time players, and a lot of them had starring roles. Two of them combine for something fun here. McKivitz sees a blitz, realizes Missouri is in a bad spot with pressure from the left and a run to the right and just blocks right. That lets Bosch climb up to the second level, and Crawford — well, more on him in a second.

Punter Billy Kinney was no less impressive than holder Billy Kinney. Adam Shuler was maybe a revelation at defensive end. Maurice Fleming had a huh? pass interference penalty and was otherwise indistinguishable at cornerback and nickelback (and perhaps that’s why debuting Antonio Crawford saw so many passes). David Long looks like a splendid fit as a linebacker in this defense. Toyous Avery handled safety duties when WVU was able to sub into its nickel package. Kyzir White … I heard long ago that, yes, he’s big and fast, but his timing is what stands out. He was off early in the game — “I had to cuss him out a little bit,” safeties coach Matt Caponi said. — but he was on some snaps late in the game. I’m excited to see where he goes in the blitz package, because he’s already good and he’s going to get better.

The most impressive debut, though, was Crawford’s. He had extremely high standards to live up to, thanks in large part to running backs coach JaJuan Seider’s seemingly uncharacteristic but also unrepentant praise. Crawford got 26 touches and turned 21 carries into 101 yards and a touchdown.

Good: No quit
Crawford had the long run early. He once caught three passes in a row. He scored a touchdown. He battled for yards and first downs. But this is the play that I think summarizes what he means to the offense. The guy doesn’t quit on a play. He gets Howard a bunch of extra yardage here, but he flashed this all game long. Catch a pass short of the sticks and make sure you pass them. Crash into the middle of the line and spin your wheels to get the yardage you need. Both were third down plays, and WVU got a touchdown out of the possession Crawford extended on the catch. Seider warned us about this, but it was still something else to see it. I thought Shell did what he was supposed to do Saturday, but if your worry with him or the running game in general is that it can be too picky and/or patient, Crawford runs right over that concern. Perhaps it is contagious.

Bad: Help
I didn’t think the receivers had especially good days, with the exception of Shorts. Some of that is the design of Missouri’s defense, which was successful. Some of it was the receivers. Durante didn’t get a lot of help from Howard on some passes, but he doesn’t help his quarterback here. He jumps inside, and Howard is throwing to a different spot than he wants to throw to. You’d rather have your receiver between the defender and the sideline. Durante then goes hang-glider when he needs to at least consider playing defensive back.

And the reviews were not excellent.

This was a weird play live, because the cornerback blitzes. The quarterback and receiver need to be connected. Instead we have the clash. Howard sees the blitz but it looks like White wonders if he should stay or if he should go. Howard shoots the moon and White is just sort of kept out of the play. The communication thing happens in an instant, but that ball is there for White. The safety is really only coming over to play White and not the ball, and you wonder if White could have picked up a PI or maybe even caught the ball if he fought through the safety’s coverage.

The worst stuff was on special teams, though. Gary Jennings is catching a lot of grief for catching everything, and though that sounds odd, understand the critique is because he’s inviting danger. As you might expect, Jennings was asked this week if there were some punts he should have secured with a fair catch. “Quite a few, actually,” he said. Officially, the Mountaineers don’t want to stunt his development by clamping off his aggressiveness and confidence. For now, they’ll live with a turnover-free day. But there is a big part of the punt return we’re overlooking: The blocking. WVU’s was awful with one exception Saturday.

This is, obviously, not the exception. You’ll need to watch it twice, and I apologize. Jordan Adams is on the line and the second from the top. Antonio Crawford is on the 49. They’re cornerbacks who are used to turning and running with opponents. They never touch the (very fast) guys they’re supposed to block. Crawford knew it, too.

Also not the exception. Also a double feature. Also sorry about that. I can’t tell who starts up on the line and then drops back, but he and Mike Daniels collide, and Daniels’ guy has a free path to Jennings. That guys doesn’t make the tackle, because Adams had the same problem.

Everybody but Jennings’ dentist should upset about this.

Ready for the exception?

This isn’t special, but look how much better the blocking is. “Just better execution,” special teams coach Mark Scott said. “We talked at halftime about getting our hands on guys. There were still technique issues, but we used a couple different people, put in some people who were fresh, and some people who weren’t performing we pulled out and put some new guys in.”

Bad: Shoelaces
Sacks are going to happen, even at WVU. When a green offensive line is easily diagnosed before the snap and a fifth-year senior like Ardnt knows — and you can tell he knows here — the blocking is going left and his corner is going to be so easy to maneuver, you’ll see a quarterback get obliterated, though typically on the blind side. But you’re really not supposed to knock someone — a 6-foot-4, 205-pound someone — out of his damn shoes.

Good: Tony Gibson’s salt
Hey, kudos to the defense. One-hundred snaps and 462 yards, and just one snap was good for more than 26 yards. Ten plays and 80 yards came with a collection of backups in the game, and Gibson was so mad at that touchdown drive that he put his starters back in the game. The Tigers ran 47 times for 180 yards, and that 3.8 yards per carry is even lower if not for Marvin Zanders running through some weak attempts at tackles for 21 yards — success he didn’t have again. Missouri was 10-for-24 on third down, and 26 of the 27 teams Gibson has faced have converted no more than half of the time on third down. The exception was Alabama in his first game, so this is 26 in a row now. He vowed that Christian Brown and Arndt were going to impress. He was confident in Fleming, Crawford and Rasul Douglas at corner. He believed Jeremy Tyler would keep a lid on the defense even if he was new to free safety. He was right on all of that. He believes in his players and his version of the 3-3-5.

The Mountaineers — the team that started nine seniors on defense — lost a lot on that side of the ball, but they still have Gibson. A lot of people made a lot of noise about the former, but they seemed to overlook the latter. He’ll never come out and say it, but deep down, or, heck, maybe right there on the surface, I think that bugs him. He will never accept that he or his players get the acknowledgements they deserve.