Such is the case with Baylor’s spread attack versus West Virginia’s odd stack. The one was built to exercise space, the other a direct counter to it. And with the teams close in talent, and both sides employing veterans in the majority of positions, it will be the prime match-up in the game. The Bears, of course, have ripped through the first five foes, averaging more than 700 yards and 64 points per game. There’s been little more than token resistance, but that should change this weekend, when Tony Gibson again tries to formulate a game plan to snuff BU’s firepower.
It’s worth noting that since WVU’s 41-27 win last season, no team has held the Bears below 38 points during a 10-1 stretch. And frankly, the Mountaineer defense was better than that, limiting Baylor to a field goal after a muffed punt deep in their own end while another score came off Clint Trickett’s fumble on the first series. Take away those 10 points, and that 17 allowed to Baylor looks pretty darn impressive.
The set-up isn’t that much different this season, save BU knowing more what to expect in terms of pressure. WVU strategically harassed Bryce Petty all game last year, blowing up pass pro schemes with numbers advantages, and using movement up front to open gaps for oncoming linebackers and ends while the secondary held down the man-to-man responsibilities, often with cover zero. The result was nine punts, four sacks and just 318 total yards, a marker of success in the Big 12.
But can the Mountaineers come close to duplicating that this season without both their best defender and the element of surprise from last season? Nothing about this Baylor spread – expect a more mobile quarterback – is all that different from last year. But the Bears have had this one circled for a bit, while West Virginia comes off a pair of losses, and might be emotionally down.
“They are about 50-50, safeties coach Joe DeForest said of BU’s balance. “They are going to run it if you’re light in the box and if you overload the box, they will throw it. It’s that simple. If they run, you have to tackle the guy. If they throw, you have to tackle the guy. The look you show them, they have a built in (call). That’s a run look, throw it. That’s a passing look, run it. It’s difficult to defend, but it’s a simple concept. Our game plan is to try and confuse them. What we will do, you will obviously have to wait until Saturday.”
There are two thoughts to formulating a game plan, and both have merit. One is that even with many players the same, WVU can’t do what it did last year, because Baylor will be expecting it. Then there’s the flipside of Baylor expecting WVU to expect them to expect it, and therefore changing plans. Dizzying, these notions. The truth is this: Both teams will try and solve the puzzle early, and gain as much information as they can out of the first few drives. That’s typically when the most tells are shown, and how teams then begin to formulate counters to the initial strategy.
“Cat and mouse,” DeForest said. “Isn’t it fun?”
West Virginia will be checking blocking scheme, how Baylor responds to certain formations, how intent head coach Art Briles and coordinator son, Kendal, are on running the football, and where the Mountaineers might have an individual advantage.
"Because our defense is so unique, you don’t know how they are going to attack you,” DeForest said. “Now as you get into Big 12 play you can go back to last year and say, ‘OK, when we did this, they did that. Was it successful?’ If it was successful, that’s probably what they are going to go to. If it wasn’t successful, then we won that particular down.”
It’s much the same for the Bears, who are looking to exploit the space and one-on-one match-ups, and testing the interior WVU defensive line to see if it can again match the senior-laden offensive line. From there, the cat and mouse stuff starts. How will Gibson gamble on second and third if WVU has Baylor behind the chains? Is he willing to again go without a free safety in key moments, especially without having Karl Joseph on the field to handle things across the face of the defense? And what about the mobility, which we at BlueGoldNews.com featured in earlier scouting articles, of new BU quarterback Seth Russell, who will run the zone read and can better break contain for gains than did Petty, a pocket passer?
“That’s the thing,” DeForest said. “If you move guys out to cover, they are going to run it. If you cheat the box, and try to play in between, they are going to say you’re out-leveraged and throw it out and see if you can make a tackle. That’s the dilemma they put every defense in, and you have to decide how you attack it.
“Every coach, whether offense, defense, or special teams, steals plays and steals ideas. That’s just the nature of football. They see a play on tape that fits what they do, and they take it. Art has one a great job of developing a different mentality for that Baylor team, a different personnel, and obviously he has evolved the offense to his personnel.”
That’s where Baylor has truly elevated its game. Instead of two- and three-star players running the offense, it’s now three-, four- and five-stars. The talent level has been upgraded, perhaps more so than with any team in the nation. And all that talent is making defending in space even tougher, with the higher skill, the better passing, the quicker reaction times and explosiveness.
“Everywhere,” Gibson said of where players are stressed in space. “The back end with their speed. They use all 53 1/3 yards of the field. They apread you thin and get you one on one in space and these kids are so good, they keep coming. Linwood, if you don’t have enough (in the box) to stop the run, he will run through tackles. It’s why they are averaging 725 a game and 64 points.”
Every defense is exposed somewhere. But here’s the main issue for West Virginia: If that exposure is disguised enough to where it’s discovered just a split second later, that can make the difference. Blitzing allows West Virginia to force earlier throws into man coverage. Covering where and how the blitz comes is even better. It’s not ideal, of course, to have a back matched up with some linebackers, but the odd stack set emphasizes speed by sliding players like Nick Kwaitkoski, a former safety, down to linebacker. Add in the spur and bandit positions, and the Mountaineers are as equipped as any team to defend the look.
The Mountaineers did that amazingly well last season, mixing different looks, varying where and how the numbers came, threatening an all-out blitz and then delivering or partially bailing out. Expect the same this season, but also expect Baylor to be better able to react to it. If one goes back and watches the film, it was surprising how many issues the Bears had up front in reading the WVU defense and then reacting properly in both the run and pass games.
“The key to playing Baylor to me is tackles,” DeForest said. “If you can make tackles in the open field, they are not going to throw five yard dink routes all the way down the field. They want to take shots. And with their ball security, you have to attack the football and affect the football. They want the big ball, they want to be flashy and make a statement.”
Baylor managed just 95 yards on 42 attempts (2.3 ypc) last year, and were routinely foiled in pass protection, with Gibson getting open lanes to the passer by overloading gaps and getting the timing correct where a lineman was forced to commit to one gap protection, the back was forced to another because of numbers, and then another defender hit the open gaps with an open lane to Petty. There’s little doubt that’s been an area of emphasis, and it’ll be interesting to see if rather than gaps, BU decides to simply block a zone on pass pro and squeeze their line splits together a touch more for lesser space.
Of course, that also lessens the run lane, and gets the team away from what they typically do, and that’s not always the easiest of tasks to accomplish within a week. The bet here is that’s left alone, and Baylor simply challenges West Virginia much the same as it did last season, figuring on better protection, not misfiring deep as often as it did last year and relying on better push up front in the run game and more mobility from Russell.
“They are the best offensive line we have played up to this point,” Gibson said. “They are the best team in the country. For them not to be ranked No. 1, I don’t know what guys are watching. I watched Ohio State and I don’t think it’s close. Hopefully we confuse them a little bit to slow them down. Last year I think they ran 91 plays and that’s probably the slowest they were all year.”