Doctor's Orders: Different D For OSU, Baylor

Why Tony Gibson and the Mountaineers can’t defend Oklahoma State like Baylor or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Blitz.

West Virginia found the kryptonite to Baylor’s superman-like offensive performance last week when defensive coordinator Tony Gibson brought the blitz 49 times on 79 snaps. WVU, using five, six, or, a handful of times, seven rushers routinely collapsed the pocket around quarterback Bryce Petty, limiting the senior to just 16 completions on 36 attempts, his lowest percentage of the season. Petty, a Heisman hopeful entering, threw for just 223 yards, and overthrew multiple deep balls with open wideouts.

Gibson noted to a handful of people prior to the game that Petty disliked pressure, and when the quarterback was forced to go through reads, then reset, his statistics took a nosedive. The Mountaineers held that maxim, especially when the Bears moved across the 50. Gibson routinely left one safety high, or went to cover zero, meaning man coverage across the board with no safety help over the top. Baylor lost 45 yards rushing, 29 of which came on four sacks, arguably the biggest of which came with 3:11 left when Shaq Riddick – out of a cover zero look – brought pressure up the middle for his third sack of the game.

The transfer hit Petty, protected against seven blitzers by just five linemen and a back on the offensive right, after rushing from an end slot that was between BU’s left guard and tackle. The Baylor guard, noting linebacker Wes Tonkery attacking the B gap, slid outside as the tackle tried to seal K.J. Dillon off the edge. That left Riddick an open lane, and the senior dropped Petty within one second after his initial read. Those pair of receivers were covered up in the flats, and the other two wideouts to the far side, running slants, were blanketed anyway.

Moreover, the Bears running game, which averaged 251.5 yards per game, and 5.0 yards per carry, was held to just 95 yards on 42 carries, a paltry 2.3 yards per tote average. West Virginia often clogged the middle of the field with the rush, and the angles within Gibson’s odd front multiple scheme enabled multiple defenders to run to the ball, limiting yardage into the second level and beyond. WVU also kept Baylor behind the sticks in down and distance, which limited head coach Art Briles’ play selections and set-up Gibson for more secure blitz and coverage choices of his own.

The success, somewhat shocking in its completeness, has brought mislead credence to the idea that a similar game plan would work this week against Oklahoma State’s spread, uptempo style. It reasons that the Cowboys, employing similar formations out of an offense largely tagged with the same spread, “Air Raid” ideas, would be susceptible to the same basic game plan – especially against a back-up quarterback in Dax Garman who is struggling with accuracy and decision-making speed. Unfortunately, Oklahoma State’s offense, quite frankly, resembles Baylor’s in formation only.

The Bears are a physical, solid running team that prefers a vertical-based passing attack. Baylor, in two seasons of film viewing, shockingly has never called a running back screen. Not once. That play, which can destroy a blitz scheme and force pass rushers to back off, was never on the radar screen last week, and so the penalties for pinning the proverbial ears back and pressuring was lessened. There was absolutely no fear in West Virginia via that particular threat. Two, Baylor’s pass game, vertically based, runs far fewer slants and two-man crosses, and rub routes, than that of teams like WVU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. It might not be fair to say the latter three are in a completely different stratosphere as Baylor, but they’re definitely quite far apart in intricate offensive approach.

If West Virginia sends six or seven rushers on a consistent basis, OSU will begin to blow it up with quick release shallow crosses, running back screens of various sorts and the occasional middle screen to a receiver running across when the lineman release upfield ahead of him, though this takes some time for development. The Cowboys, like Baylor, also employ quick look passes to the flats, where a wideout will flash his numbers to the quarterback and, if the defensive back cushion is excessive, gain a reception, then head upfield.

The counters to all these are obvious, but they aren’t to simply throw numbers in the face of Garman at the same rates WVU did to Petty. The Mountaineers will have to protect against the crosses and run game with linebackers, meaning rushing any more than five on a play will be the anomaly rather than the rule. They’ll also have to slow the blitz and read keys, ensuring that Garman isn’t dropping the ball off to a back on the screen. OSU will also, after an initial block, release the back into the flats. If West Virginia doesn’t get to Garman, and the DBs are in single coverage, it leaves a lot of room for yards after the catch.

The most concerning thing about single coverage with no safety help in this game – which will not be used by Gibson much – is that, with a cross, receivers can get the ball easily on a catch-and-run, with a fast release that beats the pressure. The open room available in space is maximized for the offense, and it might not even take a missed tackle – of which WVU had just six last week compared with 23 against Texas Tech – to result in a touchdown. Remember, one-on-onee means if a DB is trailing and the catch is made, he’s already beat. Now it’s three on three with dangerous receivers in the open field, and typically OSU lines up in twins to each side, meaning two of the DBs are already away from that side of the field in coverage – bad news for a defense.

The primary look for the Mountaineers, early in the down/distance equation, is likely lots of cover one until Oklahoma State, which protected Garman early against TCU with a series of run plays, proves it can win one-on-ones and forces WVU into a two-safety look. The Cowboys have struggled in the pass game, and it will be interesting to see if Gibson feels he needs another safety deep routinely. Of course, on longer distances and later downs, such as second and third and 10-plus, that would seemingly call for an added safety, though that’s typically, especially on second down, when OSU hands the ball off for a more manageable next down.

West Virginia has some advantages this game that it didn’t against Baylor. First, OSU’s wideouts aren’t as explosive deep, and, overall (Tyree Hill being the noted exception) lack the vertical burst of Baylor. Second, the Cowboys’ line isn’t quite as solid as Baylor’s, and lacks the overall tenacity. Third, the odd stack is difficult to adjust to the first time it is seen, and Garman made some ill-fated decisions against TCU, especially early on second and six against the Frogs, when he and a receiver and/or tight end miscommunicated and Garman threw to what he thought was a curl (WR) or out (TE), right to the arms of TCU CB Kevin White. That element of indecision should help WVU, especially with how it’s able to cover in space now.

It reads here to use caution in assuming the next defensive performance will be as slid as the last one. Oklahoma State is more like Texas Tech than Baylor, and one never knows when missed assignments or missed tackles will occur again. West Virginia will have to be much more assignment-based, reads its keys and slow down its flow to the ball because of misdirection and the screen game. Keep in mind also that Baylor missed a couple open wideouts, either because of lackluster throws (credit WVU’s defense), or drops (all on Baylor’s offense). The Bears really should have had at least seven points toward the end of the game, likely setting up an onside kick and making the ending a bit more tense than it already was.

OSU averages more than 33 points per game and, until last week’s 42-9 throttling by TCU, had won four of six games by double digits, with the lone loss 37-31 versus then-No. 11 Florida State in the season-opener. The Cowboys are still young, and that has resulted in struggles at times. But they remain a favorite, if by no more than a point – meaning West Virginia must once again go on the road for an upset in Big 12 play.

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