WVU had sacks from four different positions (nose, end, linebacker and cornerback) in the 48-17 rout of the Red Raiders, but the fact that the Mountaineers blitz, and from all positions, isn’t anything new. What caught our eye in the game was pre-snap activity, and how defensive coordinator Tony Gibson varied that to provide maximum confusion to Kliff Kingsbury, Patrick Mahomes and the Tech offense.
We broke this movement and alignment change down into four broad categories: No changes, change early, change late and multiple changes. In the first half, on seven occasions, the Mountaineers made multiple changes in their alignment pre-snap. Five other times they changed late, within a couple of seconds of the snap of the ball and after Mahomes had changed the play. Four more times they changed early, forcing another call change, or at least another delay in resetting the offense. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, 27 times the Mountaineers didn’t alter their look after lining up.
There’s a lot to take and read into this. First, while the Mountaineers move around a good bit, they are often confident in their initial call and stick with it. Sometimes that’s dictated by the pace of the offense, which snaps the ball quickly and doesn’t allow for any adjusting. But it’s also a signal that Gibson is confident in what his defense can do, and isn’t relying on gimmickry or jumping around like rice on a hot skillet.
The 16 changes, though, served to bother Tech some in the first half. In the second half, it came into play even more. Tech constantly slowed its pace to try to get a read on the defense, and WVU was even more active over the final 30 minutes – or at least until the final couple of drives when the game was in hand. The Mountaineers constantly reset, or faked and then reset. Tech reacted. And then another reset would come – often back to the original alignment, leaving Tech in a bad play.
Some of these "changes" are based on personal initiative. Players do have some freedom to provide a different look, such as at cornerback where the defender might walk up to the line to give the idea of press coverage, then drop out a few yards off the ball. Spurs and bandits can also be active in this regard, and it can cause even more confusion when the activity of one player doesn't match the overall look of what the quarterback is seeing.
This isn’t easy to execute, though. The potential for confusion is great – every player on the defense has to be aware if a blitz is changed or called off, if a coverage is changed, or if the rush count changes. Individuals performing their own disguises also have to make sure they are back into their correct position when the ball is snapped. It’s hard enough just to make reads and execute assignments with just one call – faking another and moving around increases the chance for a bust exponentially. That WVU did so with so few mistakes was simply remarkable.
Part of the blitz package included zone blitzes, which were used to a heavier degree than any other time this year. Mountaineer fans were treated to the sight of Darrien Howard and Christian Brown dropping out into short coverage on some blitz packages. That’s something we’re likely to see again when the Mountaineers face other passing teams.It was impressive to see Brown motoring to the sideline to help pin Tech receivers to the sideline after short completions.
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Skyler Howard has been playing very, very well. But one item that may have been overlooked is his ball handling and faking. He’s really selling run fakes, and also made a great set fake where he looked as if he was throwing a wide receiver screen before dashing upfield on a lead draw to get a first down. It’s not so much pump fakes that he’s selling well, but rather the positioning and attitude, if there is such a thing, in his fakes.
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WVU was so unconcerned with Tech’s running game that it routinely dropped linebackers and safeties well off the line of scrimmage (when it wasn’t in blitz mode). Even on downs where a run should have been a fair consideration, the second-line defenders were often six or seven yards out at the snap. That helped them cut down on Tech’s quick slants and crossing patterns, which are a staple of their offense. It’s not a tactic that can be used against teams with better running games, but in this one it was an effective move.
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The continued evolution of the stacked and bunched wide receivers continued, and results off a couple of wrinkles were great. First, WVU went with the double stack (two receivers lined up vertically on either side of the formation) several times, but this time added a slot receiver to the formation, giving it a five wide look. All of those players weren’t always receivers, though – Kennedy McKoy was out there on several occasions. (McKoy's block downfield spring Daikiel Shorts for his long catch and run in the first half was another sign of his continued development.)
The formation also morphed into a trips set on one side, which the Mountaineers threw a couple of screens out of. Then came the kicker. Near the goal line, WVU again went trips left – only this time it was Elijah Wellman, Michael Ferns and Justin Crawford as the receivers. One quick flip to Crawford later, and the junior was waltzing into the end zone behind a pair of big blocks from the fullbacks. That’s an awesome formation and play call, and one that will have opposing coordinators working overtime to figure out how to defend.
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Last year, head coach Dana Holgorsen labeled Cody Clay as one of the best players on the team, an assignation due in part to his versatility. Is Wellman approaching that status? He lined up as a wingback for much of the Tech game, which set up some of the runs WVU ran off tackle. He probably isn't going to get a chance at tight end, as the return of Trevon Wesco from injury has him getting the bulk of time at tight end now (Rob Dowdy has returned to his normal offensive line number of 71). However, Wellman lines up all over formations, and continues to be one of the blocking linchpins on the team.