WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. BYU

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A reminder: These guys won. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In the moment, you had to suspect this was going to end badly. In retrospect, well, this is still foreboding.

There’s 2:36 left in Saturday’s game, and to say the wheels are coming off is not accurate. The wheels are off and rolling down the Beltway. West Virginia, once up 35-19 with 11:27 to go, is now ahead by three points and stumbling off the field after a blooper turnover, a shocking error by either the most reliable player or the most reliable tandem on the team. It’s probably both. The Mountaineers were four yards and one or two plays away from putting away BYU.

Then WVU calls a freeze play, which is designed to make the defense, aggressive in the protection of its end zone, show its hand. A receiver motions from left to right, the quarterback throws out a hand gesture in the shotgun to trigger the defense and BYU shows something. That’s an if-then scenario. If the defense shows something, then quarterback Skyler Howard has a play he knows to call. So he saw the defender on his right dart toward the line and knew he had to execute the plan.

WVU does this all the time. You’ve seen it. You have. Near as we can tell, center Tyler Orlosky thought BYU jumped offsides and that a shrewd snap would get his team a free play.

Whoops.

Howard looks speechless. Orlosky is incensed. Dana Holgorsen, yeesh. When I was re-watching the game, I saw that look and audibly apologized to him. It’s a violent momentum swing. Remember, the Mountaineers were up 16 points and floundered and then recovered with what seemed like a game-clinching interception. They were 144 inches away from getting on the bus with a win.

Now that happens and the defense has to go against a percolating offense. It’s a quick change, WVU plays a Charmin quality zone and that surrenders the easiest 29-yard pass up the rail. Couldn’t even use the shadow of the goal posts as an ally.

A false start follows, and it’s first-and-15, but seconds later it’s third-and-4, and that’s followed by a 23-yard play, again to the right after quarterback Taysom Hill broke outside.

This is bad, gang. Howard and Orlosky are still carrying on on the sideline. Hill is on a roll. Momentum is wearing white. The ball is on WVU’s 28-yard line, but a 45-yard field goal is anything but certain given that BYU’s starting kicker was out and replaced by the original starter who lost his job. But who’s thinking field goal when you’ve got 1:09 left?

And then Hill makes, frankly, a risky decision. It’s the sort of chance you might take earlier in the quarter, when you’re trailing and rallying and need to force the issue a little bit, or earlier in the game, when the outcome is not on the line.

WVU played zone at the start of the drive and only went to man-to-man on the aforementioned third-down play when Hill rolled right and found a receiver on the sideline. It’s man-to-man again here, which is a bit of good fortune. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said he knew this play was coming. In fact, he tried to get his deep safety, Jeremy Tyler, to slide over to his right before the snap. That doesn’t happen, at least not to the degree Gibson wanted, probably because the order arrived so late in the period before the snap. But since it is man-to-man, the defenders are running with receivers, and that not only means Nana Kyeremeh is in position to tip the pass but that Maurice Fleming has to be on the lookout for the ball and that he’s in the vicinity to step off his receiver and catch the tip.

If it’s zone, maybe Hill drops that pass in a bucket. Maybe defenders aren’t around to tip or intercept the pass. (Aside: I do wonder if the outside receiver was supposed to be where he was. If he runs his route deeper, or if he doesn’t go as deep, Fleming isn’t in the area. Then again, it’s hard to fault the receiver him for seeing the pass and going to the ball. Being near the ball is, like, the key to sports.)

And then it was over. All the worrying was assuaged. All the writing on the wall was erased. WVU is 3-0 for the second straight season but dodged a wrecking ball for the first time in a long time. How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at the Good and the Bad of WVU v. BYU.

Bad: The end of the first half
I’m not talking about the officiating. We’ve been over that. I know the rule is wonky. You would need to spend only a little time and effort convincing me BYU handled that drive so poorly that it didn’t deserve a reprieve. What we haven’t discussed? The Mountaineers were critically complicit.

Let’s review: Rasul Douglas returns an interception for a touchdown, BYU returns the kickoff to midfield — and we’ll come back to both of those. So the Cougars are at the 50 with 2:14 to go. WVU called two timeouts on this drive!

One I understand. BYU had second-and-4 and picked up a first down with a 6-yard pass. WVU was in its base defense. The clock re-started with 1:12 to go, and WVU waited until just before the snap to call a timeout. That came with 59 seconds left. Thirteen seconds. Useful. The Mountaineers returned to the field in their nickel package. That all makes sense: You use a timeout to sub, and you wait as long as you can to call that timeout.

Moments later, it’s third-and-6. Hill scrambles right and gets hit short of the first down, but he fumbles forward, and the ball is recovered by a teammate for a first down. There are 35 seconds to go. BYU hurries to the line and is clearly ready to spike the ball. WVU calls a timeout. BYU saves a down.

The Mountaineers were in nickel. They came back in nickel. It’s first-and-10. It should be second-and-10. BYU runs the ball and calls timeout. It’s second-and-6. It should be third down. BYU gets called for holding. We replay second down. It should still be third down. Hill completes the pass on the sideline to Mitch Juergens, and that gains 13 yards. It’s third down. It should be fourth down. Hill spikes the ball. It’s fourth down. It should have been a turnover on downs.

It’s not the reason BYU had a chance to force overtime with a field goal, but it was a major reason.

 

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Good: Christian Brown
This was not a great game for Brown or the defensive line, but I enjoyed this play. Watch him in the middle. I have to believe he dives forward and tries to keep the ball from hitting the turf. He tried to prevent the spike! I guarantee someone pulls that off in a game at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Bad: Perception
Holgorsen got a lot of grief for the two offensive series after WVU took a 35-19 lead and BYU’s responded with a touchdown — and a missed two-point conversion — to make the score 35-25. (Side Bad: BYU went for two after scoring on the first drive of the third quarter. It didn’t work, so the score was 21-19, and not only did that decision seem bizarre, but it loomed large the rest of the way. How different is the final drive if BYU can win the game with a field goal?) The WVU offense went three-and-out twice, and the one complaint I saw was how conservative things became. I disagree. WVU ran its offense. It used four receivers or three receivers (with two running backs or with one back and Eli Wellman playing H-back) on five of the six snaps. The exception was a first-and-10 play to start the second possession. It was a read play out of the diamond formation, and Howard kept for a gain of 4. Holgorsen called four passes and two runs. The calls were fine. The results were not. But I will listen to arguments that Justin Crawford have should have gotten carries in at least one of the series. He was so good, especially late.

Good: Beginnings
Enough about conclusions. Let’s discuss how the Mountaineers started the game. It was great. WVU believed it could hit the Cougars with tempo they hadn’t seen this season, so the offense played fast before and after the snap. The Mountaineers hurried from one play to the next. When the ball was snapped and Howard looked to pass, he wasted no time. These were short throws that put that ball in someone’s hands, and each one challenged BYU to chase and tackle. If it wasn’t clear before the game, then it was once it began: WVU thought its offense was faster and more athletic than BYU’s defense. So the start was smart. It tested the Cougars, and it got Howard into a really good groove. Remember, WVU had 13 and 14 points in the first half of its first two games. It had 21 Saturday, and though one was the Rasul Douglas pick six, I don’t think there’s any question that was the best the offense has looked in a first half this season.

There was clear intent, too.

Wait, he’s praising this? Can’t wait to hear the explanation. Look, there’s nothing there. The safety up top drops deep to double Ka’Raun White. Daikiel Shorts, the inside receiver up top, gets behind a linebacker to explore the space that safety created, but the middle linebacker covers it. Howard has to bail, and I say that because this drive was going places, and I have to believe Howard recognizes things like that and understands the game. WVU is in #TeamGoForIt territory, and I have little doubt he ran and gobbled up what he could to set up a more reasonable fourth down. (Aside: No penalty for the hit, to Howard’s chagrin. There were a few occasions when both quarterbacks ran, slid and were hit that I thought could have drawn a flag.)

A pass to White picked up the first down, and this was fun live. Three receivers up top. The top two receivers have defenders, and a safety is keeping a lid on things. But the defenders on the inside receivers are expecting something quick. It would make sense for them to run stick or slant routes and for White to go deep. The cornerback on White retreats before the snap, which creates a cushion Howard anticipates. Quick decision, sharp throw, first down.

The drive goes on, and WVU is using the full repertoire. Here’s playaction with the right guard, Kyle Bosch, pulling to the left. Look what that does to the defense. It puts everyone in the middle in a box. The throw outside sets up a three-on-two, and we’re seeing that WVU’s receivers are pretty good blockers. Also, I’d like to see more screens to Devonte Mathis. Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson can block, and Mathis is a big dude. Totally different than Jovon Durante. Mix those two up, and defenders will have issues.

Good: Everything matters
Speaking of mixing it up, here’s an oldie. Remember when we stole WVU’s playbook and added a bunch of pages about stacked receivers in the red zone? We were sure it would be part of film study in Provo. I’m still sure it was, but WVU didn’t use the stacks once in the game, never mind in the red zone. (Side Good: WVU was 4-for-4 in the red zone with four touchdowns before the bad snap turnover.) We saw this play, though, and don’t tell me it didn’t matter. For starters, WVU scored on this drive. And when the offense revisited the end zone in the fourth quarter we saw — all together — wrinkles! Watch those two plays. Shorts is open on the first, and I bet that was noted on the sideline. When WVU runs the second, the cornerback and the safety spy on Wellman. Easy.

Good: Ingenuity
Even in the absence of the stacks, the offense was operating at darn near full capacity. Did WVU run a lot of new plays? New ones? No. Truth is, it was basically all the same stuff in different clothes. But the return of the touch pass to go with the bootlegs and all the misdirection and motion worked wonderfully. I dare say it’s one of the better games the offensive coordinator has called in a while.

Bad: That said …
… I did not want to buy this flowers and chocolates. My problem is the formation. Remember, the appeal of the diamond formation is that it brings defenders inside and isolates the receivers outside in one-on-one matchups. Well, WVU has one receiver here. The other is replaced by Colton McKivitz, who’s a tight end/second left tackle. There’s just about a 0 percent chance this is a pass, so 10 guys in white can accurately guess what’s coming after the snap. Maybe we’re too focused on what we believe the appeal is and that, in reality, it’s a goal line set with a twist. The problem is WVU doesn’t have a lot of success with goal line personnel and goal line runs. It doesn’t help matters that Wellman’s collision accomplishes little, that Bosch gets caught in traffic, that Howard has to diagnose a traffic jam and that Rushel Shell threw himself at a crowd of bodies and managed to miss everyone. A whole lot went wrong at once.

These are philosophical differences, I suppose, but when it’s fourth-and-1, I want advantages. One is to make the defense guard against different possibilities. This doesn’t accomplish that. I don’t have a problem calling quarterback power here, but why not with a different formation? I don’t know, put Gibson outside and Mike Ferns on the sideline? I wonder if and when we see this again.

Bad: Five-on-three
This play call is fine. BYU is in a nickel formation (essentially a 3-3-5). One outside linebacker lines up outside the right tackle, and WVU addresses him with the motion, which cools off that linebacker and keeps him from running up the line and chasing down the play. The other two linebackers are 2 yards behind the first down. You’d like to think you can run the ball here and get 3 yards. Left tackle Adam Pankey and Orlosky lose off the snap, and this has no chance to work on the left side. That was a three-man defensive line. So far this season, WVU has run on third or fourth down when it needed 3 yards or less 12 times. It’s picked up the first down just six times. That’s problematic. (Side Something: Durablility. McKivitz didn’t play a lot. Pankey only played left tackle. Bosch and Tony Matteo played the entire game. That cannot sustain. But I thought Pankey was very good and that Bosch and Matteo had strong days. Matteo even threw a guy!) (More parenthesis! WVU allowed a sack. Here it is.)

Bad: Omens
Here’s a heck of a way to start the game. Before you press play, find Marvin Gross. (Side Good: Him! He was all right on defense!) He’s lined up on the top hash on the 50. Ferns clips his heels, and that spoils this play, but BYU’s coverage team was way, way better than WVU’s return team, and the Cougars got a major assist from their kicker, who got great hang time and put everything right around the goal line. They gambled and thought they could get WVU to start drives inside the 20, and they were right. Conversely …

… look how lackadaisical WVU’s coverage team is after a pick six. When Gibson takes his first step forward on his return, there are guys inside the 20. When BYU’s returner takes his first step forward, there are guys inside the 30. Big difference. Mike Molina had seven touchbacks the first two games, which was a pleasant surprise. He had none Saturday. He hooked one out of bounds and had average hang time on all the others. And Josh Lambert is now eligible.

Bad: More omens
Here’s a heck of a way to start a game. BYU’s first punch landed firmly. Again, not the best day for WVU’s defensive line, which made life difficult for the linebackers, who have also had better days. The work the fullback and the offensive linemen did at the second level or on the edges was consistently effective. A steady diet of lead zone plays and offensive linemen who cut you all day will take a toll, and BYU started early and kept it going. (Side Good: I think Jamaal Williams broke more tackles than WVU missed. He was a brute.)

Yet there were times WVU was game, and this was one of those plays. I have no idea how it worked. Guys are confused before the snap. Linebacker Xavier Preson gets in a three-point stance for a moment. Noble Nwachukwu doesn’t even get into a stance. BYU snaps it fast. But Preston stands up the tight end. Brown fills his gap. Adam Shuler sneaks in for a strip. Khairi Sharif hurries speeds forward to recover the fumble. That stalled momentum in a major way, and WVU took advantage, first hitting a deep pass from Howard to Gibson and then scoring when Howard ran in with a, shall we say, effective block from Gibson.

Bad: Blitzes
This is a very good route, and Hill saw it the entire way. He expects pressure is head toward him, and he knows the middle is going to be open … though I suspect he thought Tyler would be deeper and could help Sharif more than he did. It’s also on BYU’s first drive. By the end of the game, Tony Gibson had talked himself out of blitzing, wondering if they’d get home and worried he’d maroon his defensive backs in the secondary.

Good: Rasul
He’s getting a lot of action, but he contributes, too. The interception is going to get all the attention, as it should. Justin Arndt’s pressure bugged Hill, and Arndt does have a knack for this. But watch Douglas. His receiver motions inside, and he knows one of two things is about to happen. 1) Handoff with the motion man blocking down inside or 2) a pass to someone in the flat. Douglas happened to be defending the flat, and he was begging for Hill to throw it. But another important play happened at the end of the first quarter. Williams broke free for a long and embarrassingly easy run, but Douglas raced from one side of the field to the other to push Williams out of bounds. I’m not confident that Antonio Crawford was going to get the job done there. BYU ended kicking the field goal instead of scoring a touchdown, and WVU won by three points.

Good: Ka’Pau’u
I just want to point out again that White, who said BYU’s cornerbacks were old and couldn’t run with WVU’s receivers, is 23 years old. But his physical maturity helped him here. Tackling machine Butch Pau’u missed the rest of this series, and when he did get back in the game, he’s the one who got ball-faked by in the pocket by Howard on his touchdown run.

Good: QB duel
So, Taysom Hill is fun. I was talking to some NFL people, and they think could play in the NFL, and not necessarily at quarterback. He’s a big guy in person, he’s obviously pretty athletic and he can spin it. I think WVU’s defense contributed to some of his success — Gibson didn’t want to blitz, some coverages were accommodating, etc. — but I don’t think WVU’s defense was the major reason this game was so close. Hill got hot, man. I think it started here, but later on, BYU had to hurry, so they operated without a huddle. Hill was choosing from just a few plays, likely tailored to his preferences, and got to pick them out based on what he saw and how he felt. He did throw two interceptions toward the end that he could have avoided, but he did get on a big-time roll in the fourth quarter — 10-for-16 for 135 yards and a touchdown — and had a few shrug-your-shoulder moments. That’s not going to make you feel particularly good about a schedule still to feature Pat Mahomes, Kenny Hill, Mason Randolph, Baker Mayfield and Seth Russell, but worry bout that later. Taysom Hill was fun, and you survived.

Good: Howard, again
We have three games to serve as a sample. This is the best WVU has had under center since Geno Smith, correct? I suppose the only argument is Clint Trickett in 2014, but this feels, I guess, more competent. And Trickett was beyond competent. I think that’s the right adjective. Oddly enough, I picked this throw, because this is, like, all that’s missing. I know the interception was bad, especially with Shell uncovered to the right with room to run and WVU whipping quick, short throws around the field, but, heck, it happens. That doesn’t forgive it, but it happens, and you can fix that stuff. But this throw? It has to happen. I don’t care what the commentator says, it’s not tremendous coverage. Mathis is open, and the throw is a step behind. The defender you see come into the picture (No. 5) is the left cornerback covering Gary Jennings. He is not the safety. That safety (No. 2) actually starts the play at about the same depth as the cornerback. This is there for at least a long gain and at best a touchdown. It’s instead almost intercepted. Granted, an interception would have been a great play, roughly as good as a Mathis reception would have been, but Mathis should have had a much easier time with it and the defender shouldn’t have had a chance. The rest of Howard’s day was terrific, save the interception and one other throw when he’s flushed right and throws back to the middle of the field. I’d say Howard was on a roll at that point, too, but it was a bit too cavalier.

There’s another overlooked underappreciated part, though, and this is where he’s doing well without getting much acclaim, similar to running on third-and-10 to set up fourth-and-4. It’s game management and it begins with an incomplete pass.

OK, this could have been a touchdown, too. The motion draws defenders outside and opens the middle of the field, and White is inside the cornerback with no one between him, a slant route and the goal line. It sure looks like Howard sees it and doesn’t throw it, and I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe he didn’t see it. But Howard doesn’t have a chance to run here, and he’s not going to throw to Shorts for a loss. Comparatively, an incomplete pass is a positive play.

Then comes third-and-7.

We’ve been over this. Life is different in the red zone. I think the rules are different, too. Howard could have chucked this out of bounds, too, and WVU would have asked Molina to kick a 35-yard field goal. But on third down in the red zone, you have to put the ball in play. On second down, you can throw it away and use the next play. Not here. There is no next play. Give your guy a chance. If it’s a loss, it’s a loss. If it’s a first down, it’s a first down. You don’t now the difference unless you try. These are the subtle things for which Howard is praised behind the scenes. (Side Good: Shell, of course. Chicken salad.)

Good: TFGD
Say you see WVU’s defensive coordinator around town sometime soon or in the offseaosn. Say you happen to have a conversation about his two times on this staff, and you ask him, “Gibby, when do you think WVU turned a corner that first time?” I will bet you he says “Maryland, 2005.” The Terrapins used to steal WVU’s milk money, but the Mountaineers snapped a one-sided four-game losing streak with an overtime win at home in 2004 and then went to College Park and won 31-19 a year later. They thought they had a good team that season and really learned about themselves in that game. They used Steve Slaton and Jason Gwaltney with great success, but the defense, which was good form the first snap that season, took over the game. Guys started blowing up Terrapins all over the field, and for years, when Gibson would teach his defensive backs how to play certain coverages in the 3-3-5, he’d show that tape.

Now, say you get to ask a second question. “Gibby, when do you think WVU turned a corner this time?” It might be this game. The defense made mistakes but also scored a touchdown and came up with two indispensable interceptions in the fourth quarter. But if we’re looking for hallmarks, I think it’s what happened on offense.

To the texts!

6:17:
The skill guys are all good and this is the game where they’re all figuring it out.

6:18:
I feel like you may write a story in december about THAT drive.

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You might be right. Look at that. White made a play to get a first down. Crawford followed with a purposeful run. McKoy wrecked a dude. Howard, who was feeling it, made a stellar throw to Gibson, who did work in the middle of the field Saturday as well as on the left sideline. Then the cheeky pass to Shorts that called back to the goal line pass to Wellman finished it. Those things are contagions. People start to think, “I can get open. I can beat this defensive back,” and, “I can get outside. I can run over that little guy.” In the end, 12 plays, six runners or receivers. For the day, 10 players caught a pass and three running backs and Howard ran the ball. That’s as far as a very good offense can extend itself, and this wasn’t a blowout. This was a three-point game, and WVU seemed to be doing it without breaking its stride. I don’t mean to say it was easy, but it wasn’t like the offense was forcing things and trying to get a player a catch or a carry. It was flow-of-the-game stuff. And it was effective. I think we know WVU has talent. I think this was a game when it was too much for the opponent. Whether this is something that occurs regularly and is the answer to a question weeks or months or years down the road, we’ll have to wait and see.