Of course, as legendary NFL head coach Bill Parcells says, you are what the record – and the numbers – say you are. WVU is a defense that did, indeed, yield 30-plus points and a handful of lengthy, game-sealing drives. It’s also one that had the potential for a half dozen sacks that would have at least changed the complexion of the game. But quarterback Blake Sims, far more elusive than defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and the players believed, was able to escape the pressure and extend plays and drives via key yardage scrambles and throws on the run. Or, in one instance, via penalty when he was allegedly by the ACC officiating crew to have been shoved on the sideline by Sean Walters.
“As far as getting sacks and things of that nature, we had six clean shots at him,” said senior associate head and defensive line coach Tom Bradley, in his 35th season at the major college level. “We whiffed on them. There were a couple great calls by coach Gibson coming off the edge and we had him dead to rights and we didn’t finish the play. If you don’t finish, you’re not going to win, and so it’s one of those things where they are good, but I think we are pretty good, too.
“We had our opportunities to make sacks and you saw them at the game. We had him dead to rights. We just have to finish plays. Once again, small things. Everybody talks about the big things, but if you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can’t emphasize enough keeping the ball on the upfield shoulder, upfield shoulder. That’s age old. Come to balance. Make the play. You can’t say that enough times. You have to be able to finish those plays when you get those opportunities.”
West Virginia didn’t and, somewhat surprisingly, finished with not only no sacks, but nary a quarterback hurry either. The latter statistic is as subjective as they come, and Sims himself would tell you he felt the pressure at times and was forced to adjust accordingly. But it remains that the Mountaineers had 48 negative yards on the ground on offense, while Alabama had just six in racking up 288 yards rushing. The Tide had two backs go over the 100-yard mark, and Sims himself added 42 yards to the total with zero yards lost. WVU’s Clint Trickett, sacked three times, lost 25 yards on those, plus another 19 credited against the team on the poor snap by Tyler Orlosky.
In a game with a thin margin for error, those plays are the difference makers, and the Mountaineers didn’t create nearly enough negative outcomes to upset the No. 2 Crimson Tide. Combine that with the dropped passes, the mistimed throws and other mistakes, and it all combined for a 10-point loss and a lot of what-ifs and might-have-beens.
“You get a chance to put them back in a different situation,” Bradley said of the inability to finish pressure. “Third down, that’s another area. We have to do better on third down. It’s the same thing we talk about all the time and it’s not going to be any different no matter who you coach, no matter who you play. There are certain things you have to be able to do, and that’s one of them. We didn’t do that on Saturday for a number of various reasons.”
The biggest of which was simply not breaking down and coming to balance on the blitz. In a rush to create one, the players forgot the aspect of being quick, but not hurrying. The angles weren’t exceptional, and that razor’s edge was walked by Sims better than WVU’s defenders. Alabama was also better than 50 percent on third downs, converting nine of 16, a number not even in the ballpark of where Gibson and Bradley would like it. And the Tide had a whopping 30 first downs to West Virginia’s 22.
The news wasn’t all bad. The tackling, save a play or two, was decent, and WVU’s three-man line got some of the double-teams it wanted out of Alabama’s interior. The Mountaineers finished plus-one in turnover margin, Daryl Worley’s interception the lone exchange of the game. Towson, a run-heavy offense in a rebuilding mode at quarterback and along the line, amassed 17 first downs and 190 rushing yards in losing 31-27 at home to a better-than-expected Central Connecticut State team. The No. 19 Tigers (0-1) rushed for three touchdowns – two from quarterback Connor Frazier – and didn’t turn the ball over.
The test won’t be anywhere near that of Alabama, but Towson is also a team that will try to grind clock and make West Virginia earn every minute of possession it gets. The Tigers have the backs to at least begin to attack WVU, and, at least early on, the game might not flow exactly the way some Mountaineer fans are assuming it will against an FCS foe. Frazier can flash some mobility, and he took a keeper 40-plus yards in the opener. The idea, quite, simply, is to meet the challenge and continue to get better and execute at a consistently higher level each week.
“The first thing you always do as coaches is look in the mirror, not in the window,” Bradley said. “Look at yourself first and think about what you can do better as a coach. That’s what I focus on. This Tuesday was better than last Tuesday, but it wasn’t good enough. (Wednesday) I think has to be a better day for us if we are going to win this football game. Towson, they are going to give you a lot of looks, run a lot of plays out of different formations, and we have to be able to adjust to that.
‘You’re going to get imbalanced and the quarterback can really run the ball. They have a good scheme and they are a team that is coming off playing for a national championship last year and they feel good about themselves. I think their performance that they gave last week was not the performance they anticipated and they will be a different football team this Saturday.”
Note: Bradley said WVU would try to get Shaq Riddick more involved in the defense. The 6-6, 242-pound Gardner-Webb transfer, however, got swallowed up on the edge against the sizeable Alabama tackles and simply couldn’t hold his ground in the run game. That was as expected, and Riddick should see increased time against the more pass-based Big 12 offenses.
“It was a different type of game for him last week,” Bradley said. “What we expected from (Alabama) was what we got. I don’t know that there was anything we got that we didn’t practice. We knew going in to the game that (Ridddick’s) reps would not be what they were in a different type of game. Now, if we would have been in more of a passing game, that would have changed and we would have changed our MO also.”