WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has noted that Texas Tech will script its first eight to 10 plays of the game. That's long been a staple of TTU head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who likes to begin the game at a tempo be believes defenses can't match. That's proved largely prophetic thus far. as the Raiders have jumped on foes early, especially at home. In this situation, there's no way for West Virginia to substitute, so Gibson knows the first 11 he puts out there to start the initial series will be the same 11 he has available for the duration of the drive.
With that in mind, Gibson is likely to keep the Mountaineers in some base packages early, both to ensure it can be operated by the personnel, and to evaluate what, exactly, the initial plan is for Kingsbury. Keep an eye on how Gibson uses the hybrid safeties. Texas Tech likes to spread the ball to multiple receivers out of multiple formations, usually using at least three wideouts, if not four to five. The Raiders also employ very wide splits along the offensive line, which serves two purposes. First, it forces ends to run farther to reach the pocket and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Second, it spreads the defensive line out and opens lanes in the running game. But it also has a negative in that it make sit far easier for defenders to attack gaps and knife through the line to blow up run plays and force Mahomes to slide or scramble.
Gibson could either bring Jarrod Harper and Kyzir White closer to the line, as he did against Kansas State, or, more likely, keep them in the midrange to handle the mesh and crossing routes employed in what remains one of the true Air Raid offenses. Check the number of defenders rushing the pocket. WVU is likely to send at least four most downs, knowing it cannot stay with the receivers for an extended period, and that Texas Tech is far too good at the intermediate and deep routes to allow those to fully develop. Also see where and how Gibson tries to attack the pocket, and/or match the run game. Are the Mountaineers overloading a side and forcing Tech's offensive tackle and guards to slide in protection in order to not get overloaded? Are the blitzing players eyeing the run game first, delaying their initial step and waiting for the line to get into their gaps before reading the openings and then pressuring properly? And how often does Gibson feel comfortable playing a cover one or zero and maxing out his numbers for pressure while also matching very solid receivers one-on-one?
As the longtime assistant noted, it's a guessing game and a chess match in that West Virginia must first disguise much of what it wants to do, then execute it quickly and without false steps to close escape lanes and hone in quickly on Mahomes before he has time to get into his second, third or fourth reads, or his immediate check down.
"Pick your poison," Gibson said of the pressure game. "If you blitz him and he catches you in it, he has one-on-one match-ups. Last year, watching what we did to them a year ago, we were probably 60-40, dropping out and 40 percent of the time we brought some kind of pressure. Again, you have to watch because they will hurt you. What we did well a year ago is that our red zone defense was pretty good as far as holding them to some field goals, we got a turnover in the red zone, those are the things that helped us. We didn’t let them get off to a fast start, that’s the difference with them at home and on the road. At home, I think coach told me a stat this morning that they are scoring a touchdown every 11 plays, and that’s not real comforting."
The worry for West Virginia is that not only does Tech employ some quick hitters on passes, but it can also work the slants and intermediate routes better than any foe the Mountaineers have thus far faced. WVU won't be able to back off the receivers like it did against Missouri and expect the same kind of off throws, dropped passes and generally poor timing of the Tigers. The Raiders are now into their sixth game and humming along at a clip of more than 55 points and 600 yards per game - both second in the NCAA. The answer, which we also touched on here in a premium article from Tech insiders, is consistent, controlled pressure.
Man the gaps, understand and execute assignments and quickly get into and through the line while maintaining leverage. That reads much easier than it actually is. West Virginia hasn't finish effectively this season and the Mountaineers' pass rush is, thus far, worse than it has been in recent seasons. The good news is that TTU's offensive line play as been suspect at times, and could allow West Virginia some easier shots on Mahomes, which could cause the cumulative effect by games end while also putting the Raiders behind the sticks.
Check on White and see if he can get free near the line via stunts or overloading some gaps, and how Harper is handling some of the quicker throws West Virginia wants to force Mahomes to make. Also check on the exterior match-ups against the corners, who are beat up as Antonio Crawford has a shoulder issue and Maurice Fleming continues to battle an ankle sprain suffered against Youngstown State - one which bothered him against Kansas State as well.
West Virginia must win, or at least hold its own on the outside, then begin to try to muck things up in the middle enough to make Mahomes hesitate and go to second and third reads. Do that and box the mobile signal caller in while controlling gaps and tackling well in the open field and West Virginia has a chance. If it allows seepage into the second level, or flushes Mahomes but can't close and finish the play, Tech will take advantage of the eventual busted coverage for big gains. This is a dangerous offense capable of exploding at any time, and one that could put up 20-plus points in a single quarter, but one that has also made its share of mistakes and negative yardage plays this season. Take advantage of those and get off the field on key third downs and WVU can hang in a tough road environment.