Plans Of Attack

Season openers typically provide the most unknowns of any game. That’s especially true in the case of West Virginia’s defense against Alabama’s offense, as both programs break in new coordinators.

For the Mountaineers, Tony Gibson is the fourth coordinator in as many seasons. The state native, in his 19th year of coaching, is also embarking on his initial season as a defensive coordinator at the major college level. Alabama, in an effort to shift away from the run-heavy style of years past, hired former Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern Cal head coach Lane Kiffin. Much maligned as some of his more recent stops, Kiffin was at his best as an offensive coordinator at USC in the mid-2000s when the Trojans became the first team in NCAA history to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver in averaging 49.1 points and 579 yards of offense per game during the 2005 season.

That feat was nearly repeated the next season, when John David Booty replaced Matt Leinart and threw for 3,347 yards as two wideouts again topped the 1,000-yard mark. Kiffin, arguably the marquee young coordinator in the game, was then hired as head coach by the Raiders, where he went 5-15 in one-plus season before leading the Vols to a 7-6 mark prior to taking the head coaching job at USC. Kiffin coached the Trojans for three-plus seasons, being famously fired midway through the fourth year after a 3-2 start for a 28-15 overall record during his tenure. And while the overall win-loss marks might not be excellent, there’s no question Kiffin has boosted offenses. Tennessee’s offensive production increased by almost 60 percent in yardage terms his lone season there, and the Trojans explosive offense of the early 2000s became even more so under Kiffin and current USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, with whom Kiffin served as co-OC.

The major question for Mountaineer fans is how Kiffin will change Alabama’s pro set, power-based run game – of it he will at all. The biggest changes, according to players, have come in how Alabama attacks routine downs and distances such as second and six. Previously, under Saban and coordinator Doug Nussmier, the Tide typically rode the running game. An average of three yards over the next two plays was virtually a given, and Bama was content to reset the chains and go again. Under Kiffin, players have said the offense is more likely to throw. It might not be a vertical stretch, i.e. trying to take the top off a defense, but rather a midrange attempt to a wideout, hitting the tight end on a curl or down the seam, flaring a back out as a check down after initial pass protection.

Players noted the tight ends are getting far more passes thrown to them, and that was typically an area of concern for West Virginia’s odd stack look of the past. But, as Senior Associate Head Coach Tom Bradley will tell you, the Mountaineer defense is a multiple look, in number of down linemen, how they shade gaps and opposing players, in alignment, in scheme, in every facet. There are, pending on coach and approach, up to 19 places to defend on a football field. There are 11 players. Basic math notes that some sections will be open regardless of defensive ability. The question is, when matched against a certain offense, can the defense slow the ability to properly exploit such openings? Can it disguise itself effectively enough that the offense doesn’t have the time, personnel or play selection upon recognition of the defense to get the ball into the available area.

This isn’t anything new. Defenses have been matching this same song and dance against offenses since the game’s inception, the primary difference being offenses now recognize the greater value in being able to maximize the space defenses must cover. The phrase “phone booth” is often used to describe the mishmash of 18-plus of the 22 players near the line, in tight space, battling for precious feet. And that idea of play is about as outdated as the phrase phone booth itself. Now, for every offense – even one as ball-control centric as was Alabama’s at times during its title runs – the idea remains to force the defense to cover more ground than it had to in previous decades.

That’s what Kiffin will likely do better than Nussmier. There’s something to be said for having superior power backs and offensive linemen and riding that advantage to victories. The Tide has used that formula as well as any team in the nation. But when some teams began to slow that style recently, and the opposing offenses were able to strike far more quickly than Alabama could – see: Oklahoma, Sugar Bowl – Saban began to search out a way to counter. The first was to ensure his defenses saw more plays similar to the ones spread offenses run. It was difficult, players said, to defend the spread style when the team didn’t often see it ran to a quality level in practice. But Saban still wanted to maintain the ability to run the ball and play clock control as needed. The solution was the middle ground in the Kiffin hire.

In his last coordinating stop, at Southern Cal when the Trojans were challenging for national titles in the mid-2000s, Kiffin was the definition of balance, with a near dead on 50 percent run-pass ratio. Alabama, meanwhile, was just shy of the 60-40 run-pass ratio the last two seasons under Nussmier. There’s almost no question Alabama will throw it more; the question is, how much more? How much does Kifffin, and, really, Saban, who still has the final call, trust new quarterbacks Jake Coker and Blake Sims. Early on, and perhaps especially in the opener, expect the Bama coaches to give whoever wins the job a handful of base plays to execute. Safe, short routes that can be blended with heavier doses of All-American back T.J. Yeldon. The staff might be more willing to dial up the deep routes with Sims, who has been in the program four seasons and has a deep understanding of the offense. Coker, a transfer from Florida State, has exceptional talent but lacks the overall finesse and execution of Sims to this point.

Alabama has also added a fullback to the mix after being primarily a one-back running offense in the past. That’s not to say the power I look wasn’t used, just that the fullback sseldmom carried the ball. That will likely occur more often now. The Tide would also like to play faster, but that relies on timing and total meshing of players, something that typically doesn’t happen with a new quarterback for several weeks, if not several months. With what Gibson has emphasized in lining up and being ready for quicker snaps in Big 12 play, Alabama’s pace won’t be a concern.

And because Gibson’s defense – call it an odd stack, a 3-3-5, multiple – is known for stuffing the run, Kiffin won’t simply hammer away unless he’s gaining solid chunks. The moment West Virginia starts to shut the run game down, if, indeed, it can, is the moment Kiffin begins ti put the ball in the air, spreading it all over the field. Kiffin loves to find playmakers in space, and he’s given the wideouts the same type of options included in most spread or Air Raid attacks to switch the receiving routes pending defensive alignment. Press coverage? Challenge a bit deeper via a corner instead of a curl. Playing off? Quick hit with a hitch and get the ball in space with skill vs skill.

Kiffin will also move the pocket more, and allow quarterbacks to get on the edge with a pass-first, run-second option. Expect Coker and Sims to challenge the Mountaineers with their legs, since that’s among the aspects that’s most difficult to scheme for defenses. Because both are more athletic than three-year Tide starter A.J. McCarron, and neither have his crisp passing ability, moving them around to avoid the varying blitz angles and disguises is smart – if Kiffin guesses correctly. He also might be moving into the teeth of the pressure, and that’s the proverbial chess match that will be ongoing in the early portions of the game.

This actually isn’t a bad match-up for West Virginia in terms of styles. The pace isn’t a concern, the power run game of Alabama isn’t a schematic problem as the multiple stack deals with single-player gap control as well as any defense. WVU also has far better and deeper skill talent in terms of corners and safeties, than it did last season, and better linebacker quality as well. The biggest problem for WVU will be holding its own along the line in matching multiple five-star recruits in the first five, and exceptional depth and talent in the two-deep. One can out-scheme and outnumber all game, but at times somebody’s Johnnies and Joes are going to showcase superior talent.

That doesn’t always happen in the opener as much as some other games, though. It goes both ways. Do players execute worse on both sides, and so more missed assignments lead to an increased reliance on talent? Or is there a bit of hesitation in using that superior speed, strength or technique, and so that edge disperses a bit. Both coaches have admittedly tried to simplify the schemes. Gibson’s implementation of a left-right cornerback set-up and his unwillingness to slide players to multiple positions has been well documented; what hasn’t as much is the overall simplicity of the defense, and its penchant for allowing players to have a one-gap responsibility for faster play reaction.

Kiffin, for his part, has eased the terminology and given players more leeway to see and make on-field adjustments just prior to the snap similarly to how Dana Holgorsen and Shannon Dawson operate the Mountaineer offense. Confidence, too, could become a factor. If nothing else, West Virginia needs to at least slow Alabama in the first few drives to allow its offense a chance to get moving, and a dose of conviction to begin to flow to the Mountaineer sideline.

This multiple defense should tighten in the red zone, and I’d actually expect WVU to be able to limit some of what Alabama does inside the 20-yard line if it tackles effectively. A series of long drives resulting in field goals – and remember what trouble Alabama has had simply converting basic kicks at times – puts WVU down no worse, hopefully, than 12-0 getting well into the second quarter. A series of drives resulting in touchdowns makes it a 21- to 28-point game, and that much more difficult to rally. The keys remain the same from game to game, especially in an opener. Tackle well. Gain at least the semblance of a stalemate along the line. Get off the field on third down, at the least when it’s third and mid-to-long. Think about execution and responsibilities before a play starts, and try not to get sucked into the emotional whirlwind of 75,000 fans in the Georgia Dome.

It’s no small feat, and there will be jitters. But the longer West Virginia can take a few blows, and begin to dish a few back, the more any edge begins to shift. Remember, this isn’t the Alabama of a few years ago, or even last year. There are new players at multiple spots for the Tide, which, incidentally, has lost a pair of games to spread teams entering this match-up. Early on, deadlock the battle; that gives a chance to at least compete in the war.

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