At least four times in the game, Oklahoma State set up deep routes toward the sideline that presented challenges to both quarterback Mason Rudolph and West Virginia's defensive backs. The play included receivers running away from the quarterback toward the sideline, requiring a high arcing throw that would drop over coverage in order to find the receiver. On at least three of those plays, Rudolph executed as required, but he got huge assistance from his receivers, who went up and attacked the ball before West Virginia's defensive backs could find it and react.
“Their receivers were awesome,” defensive back Daryl Worley said afterward. “We knew coming into the game they would be a challenge. They had size and they made great plays on the ball. “I think that's something we need to work on – those back shoulder throws. It seemed like they game planned for that. When we got on top of them, they would throw it behind us to a spot we couldn't locate.”
To be clear, West Virginia's coverage on these routes wasn't bad. Worley, along with counterpart Terrell Chestnut, actually did pretty well in either cutting down the possibility of direct throws by positioning themselves between the QB and the receiver, or by cutting off the route and forcing a pass that had to be perfectly aimed. Even with that, the West Virginia secondary often had the chance to make a play on the ball, but the performance of OSU's receivers in elevating and high-pointing the ball proved to be the difference on several of them.
WVU's defensive backs admitted that OSU's receivers did an excellent job in that regard, but said that just pointed out areas for their own improvement.
“They do a great job of finding the ball and going up and getting it, and that's what you like to see from receivers,” Chestnut said. “Now we know what we need to work on when teams throw that back shoulder. I don't want to say it was hard [to cover], but they just did a better job of being on the same page as the quarterback and adjusting to the ball. We just have to do a better job of getting the ball out of [the receiver's] hands. It all starts off the line. If we are going to press them we need to get our hands on them and widen them so that throw is more difficult for the quarterback.”
West Virginia's defensive reaction and plan for improvement is the obvious takeaway from that particular throw and play, but it's not the only one. In fact, it might not even be the most important one. With the Mountaineer offense struggling to generate consistency in the passing game, there's a lesson there for WVU's receivers as well. They did little to help quarterback Skyler Howard in this regard, and in marked contrast to the Cowboys, mostly waited for the ball to come to them, especially on a pair of deep balls that probably should have been completions. However, instead of going up high to catch the ball, WVU's receivers kept their hands at midsection height, which allowed OSU defensive backs to recover and get to the ball for break-ups. In a game in which one more score would have given the Mountaineers the win, these incompletions proved just as critical as the catches that Oklahoma State produced.
Coaches often term these sorts of plays “50-50 balls” but against OSU (and against Oklahoma the previous week), West Virginia's share was much closer to zero. Facing teams in the next two weeks that figure to score more than the 33 the Cowboys produced. WVU's offense has to be more productive. Attacking the ball up high, and winning a few of those battles, would be a step in the right direction.