West Virginia's Front Three Key As Mountaineers Face Steady BYU Offensive Line

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The short view holds that West Virginia's defense has performed well, and statistical analysis will back that claim. But it's the long view that concerns the coaching staff.

It's also why defensive line coach Bruce Tall isn't handing out many accolades, either. The Mountaineers have managed to largely corral the run, but haven't been effective in pressuring the pocket. WVU has just one sack on the season, that the de-cleater by sam linebacker Justin Arndt on Missouri quarterback Drew Lock that had the sophomore finishing the down sans a right shoe. The Mountaineers have tallied QB hurries and rushes, and flushed signal callers multiple times. But they've been unable to finish as effectively as hoped during the initial two games.

"I thought we did some good things," Tall said. "We have faced some pretty good linemen. We just have to be more productive. We are going to see that; they are going to get better as we go along so we have to get better ourselves."

Missouri had size, and Youngstown State agility. Brigham Young offers a mix of both, along with a heavy dose of disciplined play. The Cougars average lineman is nearly 6-4 and approximately 301 pounds, which is an a solid size across much of the FBS, and considered large for a non Power Five school. Indeed, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson compared the unit more to the prototypical Big 10-style of front than anything in the Pac-12. The best attributes, however, are the disciplined play and ability to avoid mistakes. BYU is the definition of assignment football, and that's held especially true this season with two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore in the starting line-up.

"They are a very aggressive team and very disciplined," WVU defensive end Christian Brown said. "We just need to continue to lead as a defense to control the game."

Easier said than done. BYU's problems haven't been up front as much as they have been at the quarterback position, where Taysom Hill has struggled early after a season-ending foot injury in September of last year. Hill tore a ligament in the right foot, and hasn't shown the elusiveness that was once his hallmark, and allowed the Cougars to extend plays and exploit eventual coverage breakdowns. Now, Hill is being ran down from the backside when flushed, and has been unable to showcase quickness or planting ability. That has led to five sacks over the first three games while the Maxwell Award nominee has completed just 68-of-116 passes (58.6 percent) for 628 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions. 

New offensive coordinator Ty Detmer also hasn't yet settled into what BYU's personality is. It has a high-caliber back in Jamaal Williams, who is averaging more than 18 carries per game, but it hasn't been able to shake the senior free. There are sizable receivers on the outside in 6-4, 220-pound Moroni Laulu-Pututau and 6-6, 215-pound Nick Kurtz, but Brigham Young hasn't been able to throw over the top. Laulu-Pututau had six catches against UCLA, but totaled just 53 yards. Kurtz caught a career-best eight passes versus the Bruins for 83 yards. 

It's forced the Cougars to piece together lengthy drives that have eventually shriveled under a sack or other negative yardage plays. And without skill position explosiveness and elusive play at quarterback, BYU has morphed from a high-octane offense into a methodical, prodding one.

"You can see what they are trying to do and what they are trying to work," Tall said. "It's just a matter of clicking. They have played some good teams and good defenses, so it makes it tough on everybody when you play good teams with speed. You try to do the best you can. It's early in the season and things will get going as they keep progressing. They do some nice things and they have guys who know how to set things up and put other guys in position to make plays. We just have to make sure we are in position to stop them from making those plays."

Tall said that Brown, among others, has been effective in running to the ball, and chasing the play down from the backside while also stifling cutback lanes. That will be a key against BYU, as will the ability to pressure Hill or back-up Tanner Mangum, who is more of a stoic pocket passer. The odd stack is built with the idea of pressure from unpredictable locations and positions, and with the thought that there will be an added blitzer on almost every down. As much as the West Virginia coaching staff harps on it, the Mountaineers are never going to generate a consistent rush with only the front three. The critical aspect is capitalizing on the blitz angles and options to create confusion and thus gaps in protection.

That, in turn, leads to rush lanes and should allow the Mountaineers to produce pressure with four to five players on most routine snaps while still protecting the backside of a defense that has struggled with tight coverage over the first few games. Where Missouri and Youngstown were unable to take advantage, Brigham Young will happily eat up the five- and seven-yard slants if West Virginia lays the corners back. Tall had hoped to be able to glean some protection insights off the film review of BYU's game with Arizona, but the Wildcats are using far less odd front looks after they changed defensive coordinators in the offseason.

"Arizona has changed their defense, so we don't get to use what we would have when they were obviously very similar to us," Tall said. "But everybody goes to an odd package in one shape or form and so you try to study that and really just hone in on their scheme and figure out how you can stop it best."


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