When discussing blitz packages and their effect on an offense, the talk usually begins, and often ends, with the passing game. Certainly that is an area in which bringing extra rushers can impact an offense, but it's not the only way in which it can shake up an attack. Also counterpointing that is the way in which a running game can not only counteract the blitz but also make it work to its advantage.
That theme was touched upon by West Virginia running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider recently as he described the challenges his group will face against the blitz-happy schemes of Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl. Sun Devil defensive coordinator Keith Patterson brings even more pressure than he did when he was a Mountaineer assistant, and Seider knows that his group will have heavy responsibilities in picking up the extra rushers in the passing game.
"Their identity is to bring pressure a lot. We have six men to pick up six," Seider said of the match-ups that will sometimes leave WVU's pass protection in man-to-man mode. "We have to pick them up. They are a lot more aggressive [than when Patterson was here]. You can see some of the things they do that we do here with Gibby. But they aren't disguising anything, They are coming."
The pass protection is just the first part, though, of what could end up being a very intriguing part of this game. Seider also sees his ground game as a key in offsetting the ASU pressure packages.
"We've got to break some tackles in the run game," he noted. "It's hit or miss -- either they get you or you get them. We have to do a good job of getting them more than they get us."
Seider's vision for success includes getting the right play called against blitzes, and executing blocks to create a seam and a path into the second level past multiple blitzers. Thus unleashed, West Virginia runners could be on the loose for big gains. The Sun Devils, obviously, see different outcomes, including clogging every gap on blitzes and bottling up WVU runners before they have a chance to break out. They'll try to overwhelm West Virginia's blocking schemes, cut down on the time quarterback Skyler Howard has to make reads, and keep the Mountaineer offense behind the chains. In this battle of philosophies, it comes down to something of a numbers game. Can West Virginia hit enough big plays to put points on the board, or can ASU limit those and keep WVU pinned back with tackles for losses and sacks?
In both modes, there's a good bit of pressure on Seider's troops. In pass protection, WVU will still likely take a few deep shots, and if those occur against five- or six-man rushes, the backs have to be ready to take on a free blitzer or help pick up against a leaker. Making the correct read to identify the blitz coming will be important. In the run game, that also plays a part, but so too is the running style employed by Seider's group. With defenders flying toward the line and into gaps, backs can't dance or be hesitant. They will have to hit the hole quickly to catch those blitzers going into the opposite direction. That, in turn can provide running space that could serve to slow down the ASU rush -- but only if there are more big plays than negative ones. It's an ultimate risk-reward style of play, and one that has certainly met with mixed results this year. ASU has been statistically good against the run, but some of those low numbers may be due to their problems against the pass. Thus, it will be interesting to see how WVU's run game stacks up against a system designed to produce negative plays.
West Virginia has some iconic plays in its history of this sort. Long-time fans may recall Curlin Beck's sprint against Oklahoma or A.B. Brown's rumble against Pitt, both of which came against blitzes that failed to account for every gap. A couple of successful blocks at the point of attack, and the Mountaineers were out the gate and headed for the end zone. With a few of these types of plays, Seider could see his plans for slowing the blitz with the running game come to fruition.
In his interview above, Seider also details his level of satisfaction with the current running back roster (It's hard not to be pleased"), and notes how the group's play this year will carry over into 2016.