Less Than Obvious
Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to order a copy of Jed’s 2013 Big 12 preview magazine, available here: http://bit.ly/lNmvO0. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
Comedian Steve Martin once quipped: “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”
Many of us remember Martin as one of the “wild and crazy guys” from Saturday Night Live’s heyday. For those of you who were born after 1980, you probably know Martin as … Never mind. You don’t know him.
And yes, believe it or not, SNL did have a heyday.
Either way, with the above quote, Martin was obviously telling us that some things are, you know, obvious.
So how might that apply to the 2013 West Virginia football team?
For starters, it’s obvious that WVU has some big shoes to fill offensively. It’s also obvious that defensively the Mountaineers need to improve on the 20 turnovers they forced last fall (including a mere 12 in nine conference games).
I’d like to hit on a few things this year’s West Virginia defense needs to accomplish that are somewhat less than obvious, but we’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s address those turnovers.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson knows a thing or two about takeaways. Holding the same title at Tulsa in 2010, Patterson directed a unit that forced 36 turnovers, including a national-best 24 interceptions. But Patterson also realizes that good defenses don’t sacrifice fundamentals in exchange for an opportunity to force a turnover. Instead, they use those fundamentals as a tool to create them.
“I don’t spend a lot of time emphasizing turnovers directly,” said Patterson. “What we tell our kids is that if we take care of three things, turnovers will follow. The three things we stress are communication, relentless pursuit and tackle, tackle, tackle. If we can get people running to the football that always helps generate turnovers. The harder, more physical tackling team you become the more fumbles you’ll force and the more takeaways you’ll get.”
Some things about the game of football truly are timeless. Even if guys are zipping around on rocket cleats trying to dodge holographic defenders a hundred years from now, I’m sure it will still be important for them to hold onto the ball. For that matter, I don’t know the whole story behind Rutgers’ 6-4 win over Princeton in the first college football game ever played in 1869, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fumble set the stage for the winning score.
But, beyond the obvious need for more turnovers, how else might the Mountaineer defense hope to improve?
In no particular order, here are a few things – some subtle, some not – that I believe Patterson’s defense can do in 2013 to help WVU, at least in spurts, defuse the explosive offenses of the Big 12.
1. A SIMPLE ‘TIP’
Pass deflections at or near the line of scrimmage play an overlooked part in helping defend against offenses bent on hastily getting rid of the football. From perimeter screens to lightning fast catch-and-pitch packages out of the shotgun, these offensive schemes – as popular in the Big 12 as anywhere – have made it more difficult than ever for defenses to reach the passer before the football is gone.
It begs an interesting question: Why sell your defensive soul to get to the quarterback when the ball will typically be out of his hand by the time you do?
“When I faced Dana Holgorsen, I never really tried to sack his quarterbacks because you were almost wasting your time,” said Patterson, referring to the multiple times his Tulsa defenses squared off against Holgorsen’s Oklahoma State and Houston offenses – both of which were known for launching the football at warp speed. “Instead, that’s when we started trying to get pressure through that B-gap and make the windows smaller that the quarterback was throwing through.”
Simple enough, right? Get in the quarterback’s face. Hurry him, fluster him and/or – when possible – get a hand on the football. Good things can happen when you do.
In 2012, defensive end Meshak Williams of Big 12 co-champ Kansas State deflected four passes while the Wildcats’ other end, Ryan Mueller, managed to swat down half a dozen. That adds up. When your starting bookends combine to deflect 10 passes for the year, the odds suggest that five or six of those deflections will come at meaningful moments that can help turn the tide of a game in your favor. Spread that out over the course of a season and you can see where it matters.
Case in point: throw in the tape of KSU’s win over Texas in December. The Longhorns received the opening kickoff and were quickly faced with a third down and nine. Quarterback Case McCoy took the snap and looked to throw to an open Mike Davis who had settled into a soft spot 15 yards downfield. K-State’s Mueller was slow off the ball and found himself locked in a two-man scrum with Horns left guard Trey Hopkins. Realizing he had no chance of reaching McCoy in time, Mueller reacted to the throw with a perfectly timed paw in the air to send the ball careening harmlessly to the ground. Instead of a 15-20 yard completion to keep the chains moving near midfield, the Longhorns were forced to punt and the night was off to a much different start. This is precisely the kind of crack hidden between the statistical keys of a football game that can quietly help you win.
At worst, such deflections are a lost down for the offense. At best, with the ball left hanging in the air, they can result in a turnover.
It’s not surprising that Will Clarke - standing 6-feet-7 and blessed with the wingspan of a Marabou stork - led West Virginia’s defensive line with four pass breakups last year. If you don’t think those deflections mattered, think again. For instance, Baylor was forced to punt only one time in the entire second half of the Bears 70-63 loss to WVU. One of Clarke’s four batted balls on the season came on that very possession by Baylor, helping the Mountaineers ultimately stop the Bears on third down and get them off the field. Might things have turned out differently in that seven-point game had Clarke not swatted that ball?
In short, if you see Clarke’s total number of pass breakups climb even slightly this year – and if others along the defensive front can pitch in as well (Kyle Rose recorded two last season as did Eric Kinsey) – that could be a good sign for the defense.
2. FINISH THE JOB!
This one might be a little more obvious, but West Virginia’s ability – or inability – to get the opposition off the field on third down will be critical. A year ago, the Mountaineers allowed opponents to convert nearly 46 percent of their third down opportunities. That has to change.
Promising news might come in the form of Keith Patterson’s track record in this specific area. West Virginia’s problems in 2012 notwithstanding, three times in his last six seasons as a coordinator Patterson’s defenses have held the opposition to a third down success rate of 36 percent or lower. Those are the kinds of figures that typically elevate you into the top third of the country’s defenses in that category. More importantly, as evidenced last year by Kansas State (40 percent conversion rate allowed last year), Oklahoma (42 percent) and Texas (37 percent), those are the kinds of numbers you can win with in the Big 12.
“In the spring we played a lot of base defense on third down to get our guys to understand that if you can’t play base defense on third down and get off the field doing it, you’re not going to be a very good defense,” Patterson said.
“We hammer home the fact that we have to get good at something. We have to develop the mentality that, to be a good defense, we have to be able to play base and rely on someone on our side to whip someone on their side. That mentality is important.”
This is especially true on third and long. Nothing is more deflating to a defense than fighting the good fight on early downs only to see its efforts wasted by one long conversion.
The numbers bear this out.
A year ago, opponents scored (either a field goal or a touchdown) on roughly 43 percent of their overall possessions against WVU. On drives in which the opposition successfully converted at least one third down and seven or longer, however, that scoring rate spiked up to 76 percent. And what if we look at touchdowns only? West Virginia’s opponents reached the end zone on roughly one third of their overall possessions last season compared to 64 percent of the drives in which they converted at least one third down and seven or longer.
These numbers support the notion that few things can break a defense’s spirit faster than a long yardage conversion on third down. All the first down tackles-for-loss and second down sacks in the world don’t matter if you can’t finish the job on third and long.
Taking this one step further, last year’s loss to TCU taught us that all the great third down defense in the world (the Frogs were just 4-for-17 on third down attempts against WVU) is futile if you can’t limit big plays.
That sounds like a perfect segue into …
3. PUT A LID ON IT!
The shortcomings of West Virginia’s pass defense in 2013 were well chronicled. With as many as 10 true freshmen in the mix, I believe, the Mountaineers yielded 45 pass plays of 25-plus yards, tying Oklahoma State for worst in the league. Even in the explosive Big 12 – where allowing big plays isn’t always a deal breaker - that number realistically has to drop below 30 if the WVU defense wants to be taken seriously.
Kansas State allowed the fewest such pass plays (22) in the conference, followed by TCU and Texas (23 each), Texas Tech (25) and Oklahoma (27). To lend further perspective, West Virginia’s famously disruptive 2010 unit allowed only 14 completions of that distance. Of course that was against a 2010 schedule that didn’t feature a single top 10 passing offense, unlike last year when the Mountaineers faced five passing attacks ranked in the top 10.
An improved pass rush is only one part of the solution. Realizing it’s not as simple as just getting more pressure on the quarterback, how else can WVU put a lid on things and limit those game breaking plays? Why not ask the guy responsible for West Virginia’s defensive centerfield, safeties coach Tony Gibson?
“Eye control is a big thing in preventing big plays. Most big plays are surrendered when guys on the backend lose focus on what they’re supposed to be looking at,” said Gibson. Fundamentally, those are the things we talk about the most: your footwork, your eye control and what you’re defending. You have to guard against your guys losing focus on those things.”
Gibson feels it’s important that defenders understand the big picture. If so, they’ll be less inclined to react impulsively and leap out of position.
“It’s easy for a safety to see a guy crossing in front of him and think he has to jump down on that route because he looks open,” Gibson continued. “It’s important for them to understand that when those situations come up what they need to do is break on the football and make a tackle and help us survive to the next play. Those are the kinds of things that help prevent some of those big plays.”
With veteran safeties such as Darwin Cook and Karl Joseph back in the fold, West Virginia’s backend enters this season with a lot more stability than last. Also helping WVU’s cause is the return of a battle-tested swingman like K.J. Dillon. Dillon has the versatility to play both free and bandit, or even to step down into the nickel. Players like these three provide a certain confidence that the West Virginia secondary was lacking in a big way during its struggles a year ago.
They’ll need that confidence and a lot more when the combustible offenses of the Big 12 again come calling.
Until then, I’ll see you at the fifty.
Jed Drenning, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, NCAA football, Big 12 Conference
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