It's frustrating when blitzes don't get home. Seeing extra players cross the line, but not get to the quarterback for a sack or a flush, tends to ingrain the “failure' of that tactic in our minds. But while WVU was credited with just three sacks in its 17-16 win over Kansas State (and only two of those came on blitzes), a dispassionate review of the video shows many more successes than failures.
Before we begin, the usual caveats. It can be tough to pick out blitzes in short yardage situations, or against running plays, because it can be hard to distinguish a pre-snap assignment from a post-snap read. We also are classifying blitzes as five or more rushers, even though WVU typically uses only three down linemen. With that, on to the numbers.
Using these criteria, there were 29 blitzes in the K-State game. Twenty-three of those resulted in wins for the Mountaineer defense. In that category, we're including incomplete passes, sacks, interceptions, penalties as a result of the blitz, and gains of three yards or fewer. That's a very good success rate, especially when balanced against the “failures”
K-State scored its only touchdown on a short QB run against a blitz – and it's admittedly kind of sketchy to call that a blitz in the first place. I was being liberal, though, and WVU did crash the line hard with seven defenders. Outside of that score, the Wildcats had rushing gains of six and five yards, and pass completions of 10, 15 and 19 yards. There were no huge gainers. That seems like a very strong win for the defense, and certainly not a reason to scale back on blitzes, even when they don't result in huge negative plays.
WVU blitzed a handful of times on first down, with the majority of those coming in the red zone. It blitzed 12 times on second down, and nine times on third. On blitz downs, K-State gained a total of 40 yards. That's a recipe for success.
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WVU used the jet sweep a few times against the Wildcats, but perhaps even more intriguing was all of the options off the look. With a slot receiver in motion, the Mountaineers got the ball to Marcus Simms and Daikiel Shorts in the “conventional” jet sweep look, but that also served to set up some different plays. One one, Shorts came through the backfield in motion, but the snap was delayed for a second. Continuing on parallell to the line of scrimmage, Shorts turned and took a swing pass from Skyler Howard for a gain. On two other occasions, the same motion and set were used, but this time runs ensued, with handoffs and a running play away from the motion looking to attack a defense overreacting to the motion side. All of these plays flowed naturally from the same set, making it difficult for the defense to get a read based on alignment or pre-snap motion.
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Kansas State bled the heck out of the play clock. So much so, that it had to use most of its timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties. Even with that, the Wildcats still drew one, and had two others where the play clock actually ticked to :00 before the snap, but were not flagged by the officials. Just how deliberate was Bill Snyder's crew? Seven times, only one second or less remained on the play clock prior to the snap. It went down to two seconds on eight additional occasions, and was at five or under on 14 others. Only once (19 seconds) did the Wildcats get a snap off with more than 15 seconds remaining.
All that burned time helped K-State keep control of the pace of the game, but it also worked against it at the end. Had they played at a normal pace, WVU would have had to produce at least one, and maybe two, first downs on its final possession after the Wildcats missed their field goal attempt. As it was, the Mountaineers were able to run out the clock in the victory formation.
There are a number of ways to measure confidence in what you are doing, but perhaps the ultimate measure in football is running the same play immediately after it failed on the previous down. Such was the case for WVU in the third quarter, when a third down pass to a slanting Jovon Durante out of a three-receiver bunch right set fell incomplete. Durante was open, and even though the pass was a bit off-target, head coach Dana Holgorsen had no qualms about calling the same play and routes again. This time it worked, as Howard connected with Durante for the conversion.
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West Virginia's punt return tactics were something of an all or nothing nature. On three Wildcat punts, the Mountaineers rushed eight players, and for most it was not just a token effort. The rusher got deep into the protection, and while that did produce some pressure, it left returner Gary Jennings with only two potential blockers. Neither of those were effective, and as a result Jennings wound up with a net loss of four yards on returns – and one of those included a holding penalty. (Side note, that penalty was called on “number 13” but Rasul Douglas was not on the field on the play.)
On the two occasions when WVU tried to set up a return, one resulted in a fair catch and the other saw a punt so short that Jennings couldn't get to it. It seems as if punt blocks are down this year, so maybe going for more returns is a path to take? Still, it that means more penalties, that's not exactly desirable either.
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Head coach Dana Holgorsen noted that he felt like he got impatient, and away from the run, in the second quarter. He said that on both his running off the field halftime interview and after the game, so it was clearly an important point to him. However, five of WVU's first six offensive plays of the second half were passes. That is not mentioned as a “gotcha” item, however. It just goes to show that plans can only extend so far, and that adjusting in response to what the defense is doing can carry more weight than pre-made tactical decisions.
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In case you were wondering, here is WVU's kickoff coverage team: Nana Kyeremeh, Shane Commodore, Xavier Preston, Jeremy Tyler, Rasul Douglas, Kyzir White, Elijah Battle, David Long, Marvin Gross and Justin Crawford.