Playing keep-away with the football (read: running it) is a time-honored analytical point when examining the best ways to slow opposing high-powered offenses, but is that really relevant in today's world of fast-break football? Certainly, West Virginia hopes to run the ball against a porous Texas Tech rushing defense that gives up 270 yards per game, but even if it manages to do so, the time that runs off the clock won't be enough to have an impact unless the Mountaineers put together three or four ten-play drives, and also avoid the dreaded three and outs. The Red Raiders are among the growing number of teams who strike quickly (25 of their 55 touchdowns have come on drives of two minutes or less), so time of possession becomes less of a factor than limiting possessions overall.
That factor is borne out in national time of possession figures, where the Red Raiders rank 112th out of 127 Division I schools. Tech keeps the ball for just more than 27 minutes per game, but is averaging more than 47 points per contest.
The best way to battle this? First, as mentioned above, is extending WVU's own possessions. That doesn't necessarily have to be via the run, but the Mountaineers simply can't afford three-and-outs. That leads to a landslide of problems – lack of confidence on offense, defensive fatigue being two big ones – and mounting points on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Another involves a seeming paradox: Not giving up the big play versus being aggressive on defense. We discussed the need to get back to West Virginia's strengths back on Monday, but is it possible to achieve both of these goals? The answer is, not totally, but “some” may be good enough. Tech will hit some big gainers, but if those are balanced with turnovers or other drive ending plays, that could be enough for a win. The upshot is, WVU can't play cautiously.
That's only half of the Tech offensive story, though. Even with those rapid-fire scores, the Red Raiders are also #1 nationally in first downs. So, it's not just a matter of them scoring quickly. It's the fact that on each possession, they either get points or extend possessions with first downs. Battling this will be difficult, but one answer lies in turnovers. Tech is 97th nationally in giveaways, so WVU has to improve on its performance of a week ago, where it failed to take the ball away from the TCU offense despite a couple of very good opportunities to do so.
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The similarities between the Texas Tech and WVU seasons are considerable. Both teams have lost to the top four squads in the league, both are helmed by offensive-minded coaches from the Hal Mumme\Mike Leach coaching tree, and both are fighting for a spot behind the top four squads in the Big 12. The difference, though, is the status of those head coaches. Largely because it hasn't had any games against the second tier of the Big 12, Dana Holgorsen is under some fire, although it's quite unlikely that he would lose his job before the end of the season. Kliff Kingsbury, though, is a bit more secure, as he has the Red Raiders within one win of bowl eligibility after missing out on such a trip in last year's 4-8 season. Kingsbury is just 17-17 overall, while Holgorsen is 31-27.
Is that the only reason Holgorsen is under more fire? The schedule? Certainly WVU had more expectations of a better season than what has played out so far, but it is unfair to hold a player or a coach to a standard that they didn't set for themselves, or that comes from anything other than snap judgments from the media or general public. That's not to say that coaches shouldn't be examined and evaluated, but maybe it was those preseason expectations that were wrong, and set up false hopes.
Also, just as a reminder, West Virginia was picked sixth in the league in the preseason poll. Granted, there are issues with any selections that are made prior to the first snap of the year, but it wasn't as if WVU was projected as a title contender by any of the media in the conference landscape.
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Texas Tech running back DeAndre Washington is a solid back, but does he get more yards based on all the attention the Red Raider passing game gets? No disrespect intended, but the answer is yes. That doesn't mean Washington, who now ranks sixth all-time on Tech's career rushing chart with 2,851 yards, doesn't have talent. However, the Red Raiders are a pass-first and pass more bunch, as they've aired it out 446 times against 305 rushing attempts. Add in the fact that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has 73 carries, with a good percentage of those coming off pass plays, and it's clear that Washington benefits greatly from Tech's offensive philosophy.
What does that mean for West Virginia's defense? It has to read keys well. It has to have absorbed video study this week, understand when Tech likes to run, and from what formation, and apply those on the field. And it simply can't miss tackles on Washington, as it will have defenders engaged in rushing Mahomes or spreading out in pass coverage. There will be several one-on-one encounters between Washington and an Mountaineer defender, and the latter has to win almost all of them to give WVU a chance to get off the field.
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As covered by our Connor Murray on Wednesday, WVU again is contemplating changes in its offensive lineup for this game. We're not going to use the term “rotation” here, because the fact is, other than the tandem of Tony Matteo and Kyle Bosch at guard, the Mountaineers don't have one. It's been a goal, but one that has been unrealized.
It's also clear that, despite decent evaluations of the line from WVU sources, there's also dissatisfaction with the performance, otherwise changes wouldn't be so openly discussed. It's true that one – the substitution for Yodny Cajuste, who is battling a toe injury – isn't all performance based, but the fact is that the success of West Virginia's ground game is more due to Wendell Smallwood's ability than anything. Breakout runs have been minimal, with just three runs of 20 yards or more in Big 12 play. WVU has just 30 offensive plays of 20 or more yards all year, and simply must get more in order to hang with Tech.
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Compare WVU's breakout plays, detailed above, to those of Texas Tech, which has a massive 67 plays that have covered 20 or more yards this year. Thirty-eight of those have covered 30 yards or more – with 21 of those going for touchdowns. WVU, by way of contrast, has scored ten times on its 20+ yard plays. Thirty-eight of those have covered 30 yards or more – with 21 of those going for touchdowns. WVU, by way of contrast, has scored ten times on its 20+ yard plays.