MATCH-UPS, MUSINGS AND MORE
While much has been made of the move to more mobile ends and outside linebackers (the better to rush opposing passers), one of the real keys to Saturday's game will be the play of Mountaineer backers downfield. There, Mountaineer stalwarts Nick Kwiatkoski and Wes Tonkery must battle a Texas Tech attack that puts serious pressure on opposing pass defenses in the middle of the field and vertically down the hashes.
In recent games against teams that routinely target those areas, WVU hasn't fared well. Visions of opposing receivers running horizontally at the 10-20 yard depth, and stretching the field down the tracks, are a part of the bad memories associated with Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State contests of the past couple of years. Granted, the Red Raiders don't have a talent like Jace Amaro to deploy on those routes this season, but that doesn't mean they will abandon that aspect of the passing game. Tech's inside receivers have been much more consistent and productive than their wideouts in 2014, so look for them to test WVU's ability to cover the mid-range area, as well as against deep routes in the middle of the field.
Typically, these routes work in combination. An outside overload or deep route from a wideout will be designed to pull deep help from a safety away from the middle of the field, while another receiver goes for a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker. WVU's defense could counter in several ways, either by playing two or three deep across the back, or utilizing spurs and bandits to match up with inside receivers, but at some point 'backers in the middle or on the strong side are going to have to cover against the pass, especially when there are five receivers in the pattern.
This also sets up another cat-and-mouse game -- when faced with such a formation, soes WVU try to go after the passer with extra rushers, or does it drop into coverage mode? Given the lack of success with sacks and pressures so far, the first choice would seem to be the latter, but the Mountaineers are committed, at least from their pregame statements, to getting pressure from the second level. Watch that group when Texas Tech drops back to throw, and see how the Tonkery and Kwiatkoski are playing. Are they dropping deep enough to disrupt those routes? (As noted here last week, Tonkery's pick against Oklahoma on just such a play may have presaged the importance of this play phase.)
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That leads to a second and related issue. Does WVU try to keep Tech quarterback Davis Webb rattled and off-balance, as he has appeared in several games this year?
This is a difficult choice for the Mountaineers, given their problems with mounting an effective pass rush. If WVU hangs back in coverage, it might allow Webb more time to settle in the pocket, and improve on his accuracy while cutting down on his picks. That would be a disastrous combination for West Virginia, and could put it in a shootout. On the other hand, if WVU does send more than four rushers at Webb consistently, and still can't get home, then the sophomore will have more space to throw into -- again a potential killer for an improved, yet still not dominant, Mountaineer defense.
West Virginia won't be one-dimensional here, and will, as always, mix blitz and coverage to try to keep Webb on tenterhooks. Still, counting pass rushers, pressures and QB hits will be an instructive exercise in measuring WVU's defensive abilities in this game. One other note -- the Red Raiders have only given up four sacks in five games.
WHERE'D THAT MASCOT COME FROM?
Tech's Masked Rider is one of the more dynamic mascots on the college landscape. Dressed in black to match his horse, the Rider made his first appearance in 1936, when an unknown horseman circled the field at Tech home games. The mascot became officially recognized in 1954, when Joe Kirk Fulton led the Red Raiders onto the field for a Gator Bowl matchup against Auburn. A 35-13 whipping of the Tigers ensured the return of the mascot in succeeding years, and the charge onto the field has become a staple at home games.
Texas Tech also features a rather silly-looking costumed mascot, Raider Red, which looks like a cross between a muppet and the Phillie Phanatic. Created in response to an old Southwest Conference rule that restricted the use of live mascots at out of town games, Raider Red serves as the road representative for Tech, but also appears at home games.
As an aside, isn't it time to remove the ridiculous rules aimed at suppressing the activities of visiting mascots? WVU's Mountaineer is often targeted and banned from firing his rifle, even at venues like Maryland, Rutgers and Miami, which routinely fired off cannons on the field. It's a petty practice, and you'd think that school administrators would be above such childish actions.
ITEMS TO WATCH
The last time WVU traveled to Texas Tech, it played in a steady wind. While head coach Dana Holgorsen and quarterback Geno Smith offered diametrically opposed viewpoints on the effects, it was clear, at least from the sideline, that any pass with an arc to it was affected. One deep sideline pass from Smith to Stedman Bailey swerved at least three yards, turning what was usually an accurate pass right on the edge of the playing field into a harmless out of bounds misfire. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the wind can be a factor, and if it is gusting heavily, it will be interesting to see if the Mountaineers throw fewer of the deep balls that have highlighted the early part of their season.
WVU is not alone in shuffling defensive personnel in search of improvement. The Red Raiders used nine different defensive linemen against Oklahoma State, and have added four new starters in its most recent pair of games. That hasn't helped a great deal yet, as Tech is giving up 40 points and more than 472 yards per game. While Tech has never been known as a defensive stalwart, it's now being outgunned on a regular basis.
SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Sacks are the first measure of the effectiveness of QB pressure, but they aren't the only item in play. Making the passer move off his spot, forcing him to throw the ball early before deepr routes can develop, and hitting him all play a part in defending the pass. Of course, WVU would love to rack up four or five sacks in this game, but they aren't the only totals to watch. Keep track of how many times WVU puts Webb on the run, and how many early passes it forces.
The numbers so far this year aren't great. The Mountaineers have recorded just seven sacks on the season, and have only been credited for five QB hits. Granted, these stats are sometimes not very accurate, but no matter how you slice it, the pressure game has to improve, or a string of 400-yard passing yields are going to commence.