West Virginia has bettered its numbers across the board, limiting a plethora of explosive, big-play foes to 26.2 points per game, with four of five losses coming against top 12 teams. The success has stemmed primarily from Gibson’s decision to increase the pocket pressure and remain steely with decisions to play a cover zero and bring the max amount of players possible. That led quite directly to the upset win over then-No. 4 Baylor, and it has been the trademark of a defense that will again face a significant challenge, this time against a Texas A&M team averaging more than 306 passing yards and 34 points per game.
The plan remains primarily the same. Quarterback Kyle Allen, a true freshman who replaced Kenny Hill midway through the season, is more of a pocket passer, and won’t be as big of a threat as Hill would be to break out of the pocket and make a play with his feet. But Allen has a very solid arm, and is better within the passing game with footwork and delivery. Gibson recruited the Scottsdale, Ariz. native when he was at the University of Arizona, and understands the mentality and ability to continue to play in the face of adversity that Allen possesses.
“I’m very familiar with Kyle,” Gibson said. “I know him and his high school coach very well. Recruited him for about a year and a half. Intelligent kid, throws the ball very well. They opend him up against Auburn and he had a very good game. They have had a mo nth to geet him better. Are they going toopne the offense for him more, are they going to protect him more. Because I know him personally and understand what kind of program he comes from and understand his mindset, he’s a kid who we aren’t going to rattle. We will have to get to him a few times and show him a few looks and hopefully he will throw us one. That’s the way we can get to him. He isn’t a kid who is going to come out and be nervous. He has great confidence right now.”
Allen is choosing far different targets than Hill, according to A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. Allen has shown a preference for Josh Reynolds, who needs just one touchdown catch to set the school single season record with 13. Allen’s ability to play well, (96 for 157, 1,028 yards) even as an true freshman, has impressed, and Gibson noted he would have to be intelligent in how he attacked the signal caller.
“We did a lot of one-on-ones with our defense and offense, just trying to get (A&M’s ) look,” Gibson said. “It really helped our defense. It didn’t help our offense as much, because they play a different defense. But offensively very similar. Jake was brought up in Dana’s system, both very similar, so it was really good work for us. We got some good looks.
“I’m actually very excited to see how they are going to attack us. Most people have four or five days to come out against a defense they haven’t seen. A&M hasn’t seen this for a full game, and I’m excited to see how they are going to attack us. When Jake was at West Virginia, he saw it every day with (former WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel) in practice. It’ll be a chess match early and through the first half, then come in and try and make some adjustments and see what happens.”
West Virginia amassed 18 sacks for 123 lost yards, and Texas A&M foes tallied 25 for 171 yards in all. The Aggie offensive line has been solid at times, but struggled in the run game and with some pass protection. That, along with the odd look and the ability to attack from multiple, and widely varying angles that the 3-3-5 stack brings could help the Mountaineers in their attempt to confuse Allen, at least long enough to cause a bit of hesitation within a passing attack that was among the best in the SEC early in the season.
"We’ve been doing it with a bunch of kids who kinda overachieved,” Gibson addded. “Doing it without a superstar, which I like and I think the kids kinda like. We play together and play aggressive and it has paid off. We have really improved on third down defense, we are 10th, and we are 15th in the country in three and outs. Those are probably the biggest jumps we have had.”
Gibson said it wasn’t a secret that West Virginia liked the blitz, the question will be how and when. That’s something that will be dictated by the usual terms of down, distance and situation, but also how A&M plans to protect and utilize Allen. Quick or deep drops (Allen is usually a deep dropper)? Backs in to protect or not? Flood one side of the field with wideouts, or spread the Mountaineers out, making rushing more difficult from a purely spatial, close-the-ground perspective. And how fast Allen can recognize what West Virginia is doing – and the correct response to such to torch the look.
“When we have lost games this year it has been because of (the big play) and we need to limit that and make sure we tackle well,” Gibson said. “That’s the scary thing about the bowl game. You try to do good on good, but it always shows up. It’s hard to put your guys in a live situation. You try and stay on your feet and tackle the right way and get a lot of pop.”
Gibson said the last live, to-the-deck tackling done by West Virginia’s first team was against Iowa State. The Mountaineers would thud offensive players up, but wouldn’t tackle to the ground for fear of injury. That means it’ll be 29 days between full-go sessions for WVU, which is an obvious concern. But WVU he has been the crisp, focused team both Gibson and head coach Dana Holgorsen hoped for, though whether that’s a carry over into the game is difficult to gauge at this point.
“Our practice (Chritmas) night was unbelievable on both sides of the ball,” Gibson said. “We were at game speed, flying around, hitting people. It was exciting. We did 20 plays of good on god against our offense, and those 20 plays were game speed on both sides. Then we broke off scout team and it continued, so I’m very excited.”