Each week, we'll re-watch (and re-watch) West Virginia's football game, dig into the details, and provide you with things that might not have grabbed our attention while viewing in person. We'll also dig into schemes and formations and look at different trends that emerged. This week, it's WVU -Missouri.
Heading into the season there were some mixed signals about West Virginia's offensive intent. Head coach Dana Holgorsen indicated that he wanted to get the passing game back into the mix more, but the presence of a deep stable of backs seemed to push towards keeping the emphasis on the running game. The latter held sway in this game, with WVU running the ball 47 times against 38 passes - a 55-45% run-to-pass ratio. That's less than last year's 59-41% run-heavy attack, and it seems to be a very good balance for this team. Of course, it can be misleading to draw conclusions from just one game, as in-game tactical decisions and game flow can skew the results, but this run-to-pass balance could well be about where the final season numbers wind up.
In doing so, though, WVU ran a number of offensive sets that might seem counterintuitive. The Mountaineers were in the "Trey" or "Diamond" set (with three running backs in the backfield) on just nine snaps, but featured four wide receivers on forty plays. That might look odd, but it's just a reflection of the desire to spread out the defense with wide receivers to create more running gaps to defend. Elijah Wellman certainly liked it, as he got three carries when WVU was in a stacked twins formation on both sides on one drive. He racked up 22 yards and showed that he can't be ignored as a rushing threat.
Defensively, WVU was reasonably conservative for a Tony Gibson squad. The Mountaineers didn't blitz as much as many games a year ago, and sent more than four rushers on just 16 occasions. (Note that assessing this from game video is a dicey task, as reactions to a play call or a missed assignment might make it appear that a blitz didn't occur, even though it was called.) So, this number probably isn't exact, but it does give an indication as to how the overall game plan was crafted. WVU also played its bandit (usually Jarrod Harper) well off the ball as part of a two-deep safety alignment. Again, that made sense, as WVU was breaking in a group of players in the secondary that just didn't have a great deal of time working with each other. Antonio Crawford, Maurice Fleming and Rasul Douglas got the vast majority of snaps at corner, and were all part of the dime package, which saw a good bit of action against Missouri's frenetic offensive pace.
While Mizzou only hit on one deep ball, there's still a lot of improvement room available for the Mountaineer secondary. Receivers got behind the WVU defense on several other occasions, and only off-target throws presented more big downfield plays. Pass coverage on slants and skinny posts was wanting, and whether that was safeties or linebackers responsible (without knowing the coverages, it can be difficult to pin blame for a missed assignment), it's something that Big 12 foes are going to expose unless it gets corrected. Room and opportunity was there for the taking, but some drops and off target throws cost the Tigers a ton of yardage.
Skyler Howard had 12 incomplete passes. Almost every one of them was an overthrow, and two of his completions were also high, and only snared via acrobatic catches. Howard looked to have improved in this area during the spring, but it was an issue in this game. Still, his 65.7 completion percentage was very good. And with just a couple more on-target passes, his numbers would have been spectacular.
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WVU's alignment on Missouri's onside kick was a puzzler. The Mountaineers had only five players up within ten yards of the ball. Nana Kyeremeh, in the middle of the front line, was 15 yards back. He was immediately targeted by Adam Turner's onside kick, and with a five-yard advantage, Turner beat Kyeremeh to the ball. Whether that was an alignment mistake or a flaw in formation design, it's a hole that needs to be fixed.
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Mike Molina displayed unexpected leg strength on kickoffs, as he put four of his seven attempts into the end zone for touchbacks. That's a huge relief on the coverage team, which had an excellent day when Molina's boots were run back. The Mountaineers allowed just 19.7 yards per return, so credit is due to Marvin Gross, David Long, Khairi Sharif, Shane Commodore, Toyous Avery, Michael Ferns, Kyeremeh, Crawford, Douglas and Fleming for their swarming work on kickoff coverage.
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Does the new turf at Milan Puskar Stadium deaden the bounce of the ball? Billy Kinney's punts that weren't fielded seemed to have less recoil than normal, although he has to be credited for applying the right launch angle to get the ball to hit and tumble backward. Balls that hit the turf just didn't seem to rebound as high or as far as they usually do. The infill on the field, a mix of ground rubber pellets and sand, was particularly heavy. Rain and foot traffic will cause it to settle some, but this is something to watch as the season progresses.
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WVU employed the "stand-up" defense on one Missouri drive when the Tigers were pinned against their own goal line. In this, players are in their normal positions, but none are in a three point stance. Some linemen like it, even though it works against staying low on initial contact, and allows them to pass rush more effectively. I like it just because of the look of it, if nothing else.
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Rushel Shell's run in the highlight package above is a great example of a run-pass option (RPO) play, where the QB reads the defense and makes a decision based on the actions of certain defenders. Howard does a very good job on these reads, and doesn't get enough credit for his decision-making in executing them.