WVU's Primary Competition: Itself

The defensive alignments are different, but Towson’s penchant for fundamental execution above opposition confusion very much mimics that of Alabama.

The Crimson Tide, known for excellent line play out of its 3-4 set, was able to limit – but not entirely stop – West Virginia’s fastballing, quick-snap offense. The Mountaineers managed 365 yards passing, with quarterback Clint Trickett completing a career-high 29 passes in 45 attempts. Those 365 yards, all by Trickett, are the second-most ever allowed by the Tide under head coach Nick Saban and, with Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight’s 348-yard game in the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl victory to end last season, Alabama has given up more than 300 passing yards in consecutive games for the first time under Saban.

That noted, the Tide held West Virginia to just 28 yards rushing on 24 attempts. The Mountaineers actually gained 76 yards on the ground, but three sacks and the snap over Trickett’s head on a key third and goal cost a combined 40-plus yards in losses. It wasn’t that WVU abandoned the run; Dana Holgorsen’s offense has a run-pass option built into each play to maximize opportunities. Instead, it Alabama’s eight-man box that forced the Mountaineers into better match-ups in the passing game, which is likely among the reasons West Virginia reached the passing totals it did.

Which brings us to the central theme of this preview. This game isn’t as much about Towson, the foe, as it is West Virginia executing against itself. The Tigers are a fine football program. They’ve won 29 games in the last three seasons, went to the FCS national title game last year and pulled some major road upsets – including beating Connecticut on the road to open last season before getting past the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the playoffs. But Towson, much like Alabama, was hit hard by graduation losses at quarterback, along the offensive line and at linebacker. Towson is also dealing with the loss of stud running back Terrance West, a third round pick for the Cleveland Browns who holds the FCS record for single season rushing yards (2,509) and touchdowns (41).

The cumulative effect of those losses, combined with some overconfidence due to recent success, left head coach Rob Ambrose with a team that, as he noted, got a “bucket of (cold) water dumped on” their heads in the season-opening 31-27 loss to Central Connecticut State. Now, Towson takes on what Ambrose considers the best FBS team it has played in his tenure, one coming off a solid effort sans some self-inflicted mistakes. Towson’s game plan is pretty simple. Run the ball out of some pro and power sets, give mobile quarterback Connor Frazier basic, high percentage passing plays early, use the run-pass option for Frazier and operate out of a 4-3 look defensively designed to stop the run first.

Force West Virginia into second and third and long situations, eliminate some of WVU’s playbook and try and grind out three close quarters to have a chance to win at the end. Towson’s even front could open the passing game more than Alabama’s odd front did, and the windows should certainly be of a wider margin for Trickett. Being frank, there’s really no reason West Virginia shouldn’t move the ball between the red zones. The question, and it went answered in a horrid manner against Alabama, is if WVU can execute well enough itself to turn those “score zone” chances, as Holgorsen calls them, into touchdowns instead of field goals.

That aspect has been a struggle for the Mountaineers for the better part of a year; Consider that West Virginia ranked 77th in red zone offense last year, with most of those scores coming as field goals. That left a significant number of points on the board. WVU should be able to move the lines and find some running success against Towson. It should also be able to locate larger passing windows, even within the red zone. If the Mountaineers can’t find a way to punch the ball in against this foe, it sets itself up for another long season of moving between the 20s, and not much otherwise.

Look at the line play and see how much push West Virginia is getting. See how far off Towson’s defensive backs align themselves. Are they forcing the piecemeal, nickel-and-dime passes, or are they challenging WVU to try and beat them vertically. The bet here is the former. Can the Mountaineers, even against a lesser foe, execute consistently enough to move the ball on long drives, or do they get impatient and force throws. Trickett’s football IQ is exceptional, but there’s always that temptation to try and do a bit too much too early against on overmatched opponent, which revisits the theme of WVU against itself.

Line play, receiver match-ups, back battles against 4-3 all lean moderately to severely in West Virginia’s favor. The same is largely true on the flip side; the Mountaineer defense, gashed for 538 yards against Alabama, should be better able to control a young Towson line. New Tigers tailback Darius Victor is quite good, and has some shiftiness blended with speed. But major gains are difficult against the odd front coordinator Tony Gibson employs because of its ability to free players and get additional bodies to the ball. Thus, Towson will likely have to put several plays together to score. Can it do that while avoiding negative yardage, or getting oo far behind the chains?

Can Frazier and some decent receivers break free at all against Daryl Worley, Terrell Chestnut, Dravon Henry, Karl Joseph, K.J. Dillon and others? The layering and unusual alignment and blitz angles all combine to make Frazier’s experience quite difficult. Expect Towson to have some success with the backs and hitting the tight end at times, but also expect some significant negative yardage plays that will allow the Mountaineers more opportunities for pressure.

And about that blitz, or lack thereof, that has portions of the fan base alarmed – West Virginia had several excellent calls dialed up, and the plays worked save the actually finish. Of course, pressure isn’t only about sacking the quarterback, but hurrying progressions, changing his ability to survey the entire field, shifting the pocket and creating unbalanced feet and forcing the throw on the run. Which is well and good save that much of that didn’t happen against Alabama. WVU recorded zero sacks or quarterback hurries, though it did flush Blake Sims out several times. But the shifty right-hander far too often sidestepped overeager rushers and broke into the open field to locate wideouts coming back to the ball or simply scamper for whatever yardage was available.

It was, behind a very good line, among the most efficient initial starting performances seen in quite awhile, as Sims completed 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards while running for 42 yards with nary a negative yard lost. Worley’s interception was one of perhaps two or three poor passing decisions made by Sims (the quarterback did make other mistakes, such as muffed play calls that had Saban considering inserting Jake Coker just before the half.) Line coach Tom Bradley has said that West Virginia recognizes its need to finish pressure, and that part of that finishing is taking another half second to break down properly and not become so straight-line oriented that a slide shuffle from an opposing signal caller sends the rusher out of the play.

Again, the sack numbers don’t quite matter, in a pure sense, as much as the combined sacks, hurries, knock downs, etc. Disruption is the key, and the Mountaineers must do a better job in game two to build for what, of now, appears to be a very imperative contest at Maryland on Sept. 13. Check the down, distance and situation and reference that to when Gibson decides to bring pressure, and from what positions. The Mountaineers didn’t hold much back against Alabama, but it might not have shown every blitz capability it has. Those “exotic” looks, if there are any, won’t be used if all at possible this weekend either. This will be standard fare stuff, and it’ll be a good indication of if WVU can corral itself enough to also corral opposing quarterbacks.

Again, this won’t totally display West Virginia’s true capabilities. The Mountaineers can be a half step slow in most facets and still win by double digits against Towson. But in terms of crisp play, solid execution, lack of self-inflicted mistakes, this game is key to tuning up for games against Maryland and Oklahoma to finish the first month of the season. WVU might be emotionally down slightly, though the 7:30 p.m. kickoff will aid that, as will the confidence-inducing performance against Alabama.

Expect Towson to make a far better showing than it did last week, when it actually had the game won twice before Central Connecticut State got a key roughing the kicker call and a huge fourth and long conversion on their final drive to win on a one-yard touchdown run in the final 40 seconds. Frazier is a legit, intelligent quarterback with a solid arm and good awareness. Victor, who rushed for 105 yards on 19 attempts, will challenge the Mountaineer run defense, and solid Tiger units along the defensive line and secondary might keep WVU in check to an extent.

But like most games, the talent differential will be difficult to overcome. At some point, maybe quite early on, West Virginia will be playing against itself, trying to polish its own performance against what was through to be the worst foe it will face this season prior to Iowa State’s 34-14 lashing by North Dakota State in Ames. NDSU, the three-time defending FCS champion, beat Towson 35-7 in the finals last year, and has now won 25 straight games in outscoring Iowa State 34-0 to end the opener. But Towson isn’t quite at that level, especially with its personnel losses. WVU likely wins handily, but must be disciplined and heady enough to work on its on issues in the process.

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