The Bears excel based upon the simple principle of athletes in space, and how to best create that space with all 57,600 square footage of area on the field. Evan sans the end zones, the 100-yards long by 53 1/3-yards wide gives 48,000 square feet of real estate responsibility for defenses. Art Briles’ mad mind has conjured up a simplistic scheme that relies on stretching a defense to create that space, then exploiting those options based upon match-ups.
Defenses have caught up, to a point. The principles are better understood, and what Briles does has no magic to it.
“They are going to run it if you’re light in the box and if you overload the box, they will throw it,” WVU safeties coach Joe DeForest said. “It’s that simple. If they run, you have to tackle the guy. If they throw, you have to tackle the guy.”
The difference now in Waco is that they identified lesser-recognized talent early. Once that skill combined with scheme to create a winner, Baylor build upon the foundation with more of it. Then once Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III came through, Briles was off and running, taking four- and five-star talent from the likes of Texas and Texas A&M while also rubbing the Longhorns’ snout in it by refusing a job offer in Austin.
So it’s not so much how you defend Baylor now – Tony Gibson showcased that last season – it’s about if your athletes can match theirs in space when stretched to the fullest. So far, against a short stack of pancakes in SMU, Lamar, Rice, Texas Tech and Kansas, the answer is a resounding no. But Gibson has proven his abilities to ransack the Bears’ spread via pressure, and it’s a surefire part of the game plan this time, with one little hiccup.
Last season, the Mountaineers knew quarterback Bryce Petty wasn’t a threat to run. He’d move down the line, keeping his eyes downfield to throw. But that was a mere horizontal threat, and one that was tracked down a couple times, most notably by Shaq Riddick from the backside. Now, with a more mobile Seth Russell, West Virginia must also be wary of the scramble. It bit WVU against Oklahoma State last week, when Mason Rudolph leaked out the backside and gained 40 yards, and Russell hasn’t hesitated to pull with when pressed.
“Bryce was a pocket passer; this kid, he can pull it and run and hurt you,” Gibson said. “He has had some big runs on people, so we have to account for him in the run game as well. He’s a factor, and they will run it. They aren’t scared to let him go, run zone read, split zone keep.”
Russell has averaged an impressive 6.6 yards per carry, with a long run of 38 yards. He’s also scored four times on the ground, to go with a 22 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio throwing, and 1,527 yards through the air on 83-0f-130 passing.
Controlling that aspect is a game of chance. West Virginia will play Russell just like any other quarterback on the read option plays. But in the passing game, it can’t put a permanent spy on the junior. First, he isn’t that significant a threat, and second, that defender must be used to eat up space and lessen match-up stress. So the Mountaineers, like they did last season, take chances. Chances on the cover zero blitz he won’t break contain. Chances on an overload from a single side that he won’t avoid the pressure and escape for gains. And on the more base looks, chances if he does step up and run, that one of the linebackers or safeties can keep the gain minimal.
Part of that is a built in part of playing percentages in an effort to fool the offense. WVU will have to gamble a few times that it can get to the quarterback before Russell finds a receiver, or at least to force errant throws. It’ll try to mix where the pressure comes, and from what angles and times. Gibson might stand up all 11 defenders, or leave a light box and bring safety help in, or have a heavier box and bail the linebackers.
“It’s the only chance you have,” Gibson said of utilizing various pressure packages. “What they do so well is spread you sideline to sideline. If you play zone coverage, your linebackers are run-pass conflict. They are going to pick you apart running it, throwing it, trying to get guys to stretch out to their zone. There’s too many holes in the defense. Pick the right moments and hope you chose right.”