WVU Seeks Quality, Contain In Pass Rush

Kansas has lacked considerable punch in every game it has played this season – and most of the ones it has played over the last four-plus seasons. But West Virginia has been threatened by mobile quarterbacks this year, and the failure, at times, to finish sacks could haunt this weekend against Montell Cozart.

It isn’t that the 6-2, 200-pound Cozart is exceptionally honed in Kansas’ system. It isn’t even that he has top end speed or can truly threaten a team by himself, like a Tommy Frazier, Michael Vick or Pat White. But Cozart has what, at times, has hurt the West Virginia defense more than anything except a pounding running game: the ability to extend plays while exploiting weak areas in the recovering defense. Cozart has routinely done that, even in an offense as anemic as Kansas, which has scored just three points against its two Power Five foes this season.

“It starts with their quarterback,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They went with Cozart last year against us (in a 31-19 Kansas win). The biggest thing that he does well is keep the play alive. He'll do some run game stuff, but in the pass game, he does a great job of keeping things alive. Their strength in my opinion, and what's going on with them offensively, are their receivers. They've got guys who can make plays. We've got to do a great job of containing them. We better keep our eyes on them, because when the quarterback scrambles around, they have opportunities to make plays down the field.”

KU (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) has taken notice, with offensive coordinator John Reagan calling a series of sprint outs and bootlegs that allow Cozart added comfort behind a subpar line that Reagan also oversees. The play calls typically cut the field in half, but they also simplify the reads and defensive alignment for Cozart, a sophomore with reasonable promise that has been flummoxed at times when forced to be a pocket passer.

“The biggest thing with that is not so much the rush, but the defensive backs in coverage and linebackers need to lock on because he can extend the play,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said of the backside protection on blitz calls. “(Cozart) is very good with his feet, and can get out of trouble. He has a good arm. He probably throws it better on the run than he does sitting in the pocket. They tried a lot of that last week against Texas, sprinting him out and booting him. They were doing some different things. He is a very athletic kid, and we have to make sure we do a good job of containing him.”

Which is arguably more difficult than a full-on pass rush. Gibson was the first of many West Virginia assistants to acknowledge that the Mountaineers’ front three aren’t going to catch Cozart in the open field. That makes missing the tackle within the rush game a scary proposition because of the propensity for Cozart to leak out for solid gains. Instead, WVU (2-2, 0-1)must utilize controlled pressure, being exceptionally sure of gap fits and the possibility of leakage to the outside. The Mountaineers should be able to win the line of scrimmage, and are favorites in overwhelming the KU line in pure talent terms alone. But if Cozart escapes, and the fits aren’t solid, that then spills the QB to the outside, where he turns the corner for gains, or allows a vertical running seam up the middle – which is usually an even greater concern in yardage terms.

“You just have to slow down, and not overrun plays,” said defensive line coach Damon Cogdell, who played linebacker at West Virginia from 1997-98. “Guys have to understand the situation and the fits have to be tight. These are the toughest quarterbacks to play.”

Cogdell, who finished with 107 tackles in his highly productive two-year WVU career, said Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb was the most difficult quarterback he faced at the collegiate level. Cogdell was one year removed from playing Vick, who redshirted during the 1998 season. But the ‘backer, along with the rest of then-coordinator Steve Dunlap’s 4-3 set, did get the best of Virginia Tech’s Al Clark in 1997. Clark, whose game and mobility mirrors Cozart, led the No. 19 Hokies to a 5-1 start before the Mountaineer defense, led by Cogdell’s 13 tackles, including a sack, limited Clark to minus-19 net yards on 10 carries – the second-most rushes in the game for Tech – and 14 of 34 passing for just 129 yards with two scores and a pick. West Virginia, ranked 21st, was ahead 27-7 at the break on the way to a 30-17 win that wasn’t even that close.

The Mountaineers showcased exceptional open-field tackling that game, and forced Clark into uncomfortable downs and distances while also making him move in the pocket without sacrificing leverage. The goal will be the same this weekend, with an emphasis on finishing as WVU’s pass rush has often come free this season, only to miss prime lost down or yardage opportunities by failing to register the sack, or corral the quarterback enough to force incompletions or, better, interceptions.

Alabama’s Blake Sims made a living off Mountaineer misses, breaking free half a dozen times in such situations, while Maryland’s C.J. Brown torched an overeager defense for 161 yards and one score on the ground while adding 241 yards and a touchdown via the air, often while extending plays. Gibson said the Mountaineers hadn’t expected Brown to be as mobile, with as solid top end speed, as he possessed, and that caused problems even early on. Don’t expect the same this weekend. Gibson understands the mobility problems caused by Cozart, who has completed barely 50 percent of his passes at 58-for-115 for 651 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Cozart rushed 19 times for 32 yards in the 23-0 home loss to Texas, when he had an adjusted quarterback rating of just 13.1 behind a line that has been far below average this season after suffering a pair of injuries and starting freshman in multiple games.

“We haven't sacked the quarterback as much as I would have liked to sack the quarterback,” Holgorsen said of a WVU defense allowing 28.8 points per game with six sacks among its 24 tackles for loss. “We worked hard on that over the last week as far as getting guys into position to get to the quarterback. With Cozart, once you get there, the play is not over. You've got to do a great job of getting him on the ground. If he eludes pressure, we've got to stay in coverage, and we have to keep our eye on him in case he scrambles.”

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