The No. 4 Mountaineers (1-0) held Western Michigan to just 32 yards rushing on as many carries in a 62-24 season opening win. The total shutdown of the run – a trademark of the 3-3-5 odd stack under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel – has forced most foes into at least six to seven third and longs during a given game. But, through a combination of holes in the zone coverage and a substandard pass rush, teams have throttled WVU with crossing patterns and tight end passes on third downs. The inability to get off the field – WMU converted eight of 19 third downs, including ones of 11 and 13 yards and another for a touchdown – has been the most glaring weakness of an otherwise solid defense.
Marshall performed equally average on the other side of the ball. Miami forced the Herd (0-1) into 20 third downs in the first game, 15 of them being for eight-plus yards. And MU's lone seven-yard third down resulted in a goal line interception, one of four Miami picks in the contest. Marshall did manage to convert six of 18, but 33 percent of those were on penalties. It also had 10 offensive penalties itself, helping to pile on the third down yardage requirements. WVU, comparatively, forced seven third downs of seven-plus yards against Marshall last year, but failed to get a single sack. The Herd converted five of 11 third downs overall in that outing.
Both head coaches are obviously well aware of the troubles. West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez said that the "third and mediums and third and longs are giving us problems. There were times we were close to making plays. We just needed someone to strain a bit harder to make that play. I am not particularly pleased with how we played defensively, though I do think we played hard and tackled well. People want to say it's the secondary, but you have to get a pass rush on people. Pass defense is a byproduct of a lot of things, all the guys on defense."
Marshall counterpart Mark Snyder noted that "in a game, you don't want to be in third and long more than six or seven times if you're going to have a chance to win." A minor part of the Herd's problem was execution along the offensive line; a major part was the Miami defensive front, loaded with NFL-caliber talent that helped cause13 tackles for loss, six of them sacks, with five of those against starter Bernard Morris alone.
"I think anytime you play a team like Miami, the talent and speed has something to do with it," WVU linebacker Reed Williams said. "The Marshall quarterback, he didn't make too many mistakes. You'd like to think you compare speed-wise to a team like Miami. That is one of the nation's best. We do move pretty well to the ball and we are right there on the pass routes defensively. We have to try to stick on those guys a little bit and kill those short, under routes that eat away and move the ball down the field. If we cut that out of an offense we will be doing really good."
Marshall's main receiving threat is, much like WVU's, a mix between a tailback and a wideout. Running back Darius Marshall led the team with five receptions for 17 yards, largely because Miami's secondary and rush end speed eliminated decent chances to go downfield. Receiver Courtney Edmonson caught three passes for 58 yards and burner Emmanuel Spann one for 28, while Morris completed 16 of 26 tosses for 162 yards and three picks. Tight end Cody Slate, a major threat to West Virginia, snared three of those throws for 13 yards. The Herd could have added downfield success if its protection holds better. The issues in the opener might not surface as much against West Virginia because it will rely on confusion and schematic switches as much as a brute, bull-rushing force and raw talent.
"I thought we did some good things and some not so good things," Casteel said. "I think they are all things that are correctable. We put some pressure on the quarterback. We had turnovers and we had some opportunities to get some more. We probably dropped three or four interceptions. A lot of the kids did some good things (individually), too."
It did seem, as Casteel noted, that West Virginia ran hot or cold when trying to get off the field on third down. The first WMU drive was three plays for minus-five yards with an incomplete pass on third and 15. The second series netted just 15 yards in five plays. The third was capped with a touchdown on third and six from the 14-yard line, though that came on a wide receiver throw off a bubble screen in the flats. The trickery worked when the safety came up to support the tackle, leaving Jamarko Simmons open in the end zone.
Still, the Mountaineers stonewalled Western Michigan again on its fourth series, pushing the Broncos back 13 yards in three plays with the help of a clipping and holding penalty, the first two of a whopping 15 assessed against WMU for a combined 117 yards. After that stop, WVU quarterback Patrick White ripped off his 38-yard scoring run for a 21-6 lead that helped sealed the game. Cornerback Antonio Lewis intercepted Tim Hiller to end the ensuing possession and Mountaineer corner Larry Williams recovered a fumble one series after that. It was, in two words, a complete shutdown over the first 25 minutes. When the edge ballooned to 28-6 and the substitutions began to flow, well, shouldn't one expect a bit of a letdown?
"Yes, but we have to get those teams off the field," said defensive lineman Keilen Dykes, who got his 32nd career start, this time at nose tackle. "We have to get our offense the ball as much as possible."
In all, WMU was intercepted twice with Hiller being sacked three times and hurried on at least half a dozen snaps. If it can pressure Marshall as effectively, it can limit the Thundering Herd's conversion rate and allow its prolific offense additional snaps on the field – something Snyder is desperately trying to avoid. Western Michigan entered with the same game plan, only to find it hurting itself at times.
"I'm not sure they did it intentionally, but they took two delay of game penalties," Rodriguez said. "They were running the clock down on every snap, and that's when it gets frustrating when you are trying to get your offense back on the field. That's why those third downs are so important."
West Virginia can better its third down chances by slowing tailback Chubb Small (four carries for three yards versus Miami) and getting Morris, who rushed 17 times for 29 yards against the ‘Canes, on the ground. Casteel said that WVU had three or four shots at Hiller, yet could not tackle him. The quarterback got off at least three throws with defenders clinging to his legs and waist. Morris, at 6-4 and 211 pounds, is a physical player with a vast amount of game experience (three letters in as many years), and, according to linebacker Mortty Ivy, compares to a player the Mountaineers practice against every day.
"They like to run the ball with Morris, who is a great player," said Ivy, who led West Virginia in tackles with 10 in the opener, including one sack. "He can run and throw. We compare him to (WVU backup) Jarrett Brown. He is a big guy who can run. He can get up field. You have to come to balance and make the tackle. If we can force the quarterback to put the ball in the air quick, it is anybody's ball. We just have to make plays and execute."
It should indeed come down to just that. If Marshall can block more effectively and give Morris time, it can hang in the game. West Virginia, conversely, will attempt to force the tempo of the contest by stuffing the run and harassing Morris on each play, leaving receivers little time to run the slow-developing cross-field routes or spring open deeper downfield.