Inside the Texas Gameplan: Wrestling West Virginia

The Texas defense at West Virginia. (Will Gallagher/IT)
The Texas defense at West Virginia. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas’ win over Tech was expected, and the margin of victory, while considerable, was only mildly encouraging given that the Red Raiders started the game with their 2nd string QB and finished with their 3rd.

Clearly Charlie Strong and the staff, upon securing the outcome early with the hit and score, were content to play lots of youngsters and coast to victory. Consequently, Texas is now within two games of bowl eligibility but without a clean, dominant, truly impressive win anywhere on the Longhorn resume.

Reaching bowl eligibility, which has marginal value for recruiting purposes and for the bowl practices where redshirt and scout-team players often make a leap, is dubious with a remaining slate that begins with West Virginia on Saturday and concludes with TCU on Thanksgiving.

Most fans are circling this home date with West Virginia and the subsequent road trip to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State as the two more likely wins but the Mountaineers are not a fun team to play right now.

Dana Holgorsen is at the forefront of just about every major offensive tactical innovation in the Big 12 over the last half-decade and he’s assembled the pieces on this 2014 roster to make his machine crank out some impressive results.

Perhaps worse, the hires of 3-3-5 defensive guru Tony Gibson as DC and longtime Penn State defensive coach Tom Bradley have secretly elevated this Mountaineer defense into a Top 20 unit per S&P.

Ironically, Texas has invited a boatload of Florida kids into town on a weekend when Texas plays the Big 12 team that most heavily relies on Floridians to fill out their roster. It’s going to take an inspired game plan and effort by Texas to make this work but a win in this game would probably provide the season with enough of a punctuation point for Strong to head into February with confidence.

Stopping the Mountaineers

The current iteration of the “Holgo-Raid,” or Dana Holgorsen’s own take on the Air Raid, should really be identified as being a “Spread-I” offense. The Mountaineers are all about a multiple run game with lead blockers mixed with vertical passing and play-action/POP schemes. However, in lieu of a dual-threat TE, they instead use a slot receiver to attack the seam and free up their star outside receivers from safety attention.

What makes the 2014 version of the offense so potent is the personnel, which is perfectly suited for the style. QB Clint Trickett throws a great deep ball and is in his 2nd year as the main signal caller for the Mountaineers, an advantage that always helps an offense considerably.

The run game is very potent and versatile, with big guards Mark Glowinski and Quinton Spain leading the way, fullback Cody Clay serving as their version of Geoff Swaim, and a deep stable of running backs that includes speed (Smallwood) and power (Rushel Shell).

Focus too much on the run game and the Mountaineers will pick you apart on the outside with Mario Alford, who has 48 catches for 679 yards and seven TDs, and future NFL star Kevin White, who has 75 catches for 1,075 yards and eight TDs.

White is the most problematic part of the Mountaineer formula, every other component of the team is simply very good at taking advantage of the opportunities that White’s dominance provides.

The standard form of resistance to this attack across the league has been a cover 6 alignment that works as follows:

WVU vs Spread. (Ian Boyd/IT)
WVU Spread-I. (Ian Boyd/IT)

The nickel and the cornerback will jam and then play underneath the slot receiver and the outside receiver with an eye towards the backfield to stop the run as needed. Both safeties and the field corner all become pass-first players.

The result of cover 6 is that the boundary-side receiver, White, is bracketed by a safety over the top and a corner underneath. The explosive receiver has been held to six catches for 56 yards in the last two games combined as teams have mixed in this coverage to contain him.

Texas has cover 6 and a similar matching version of cover 2 in the playbook, but the problem is in stopping the Mountaineer run game from this look. That boundary corner better be a fast-twitch, physical player who’s read to come up and meet the fullback at the line of scrimmage in order to make this work and the field side safety better be able to handle the slot receiver on a vertical route.

Quandre Diggs. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Quandre Diggs. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The Mountaineers don’t have particularly dangerous slot receivers on the team, but all it takes is for them to move Alford or White to that position and the plan could come undone.

If this is Texas’ main approach on downs where White is deemed dangerous than it will put a lot on either Duke Thomas or Mykkele Thompson at boundary corner and definitely Quandre Diggs at nickel to provide a hard edge against the run. The field safety will need to have a strong day in coverage playing over the slot.

The preferred Texas strategy is to pattern-match from cover 3, which looks more like this:

Texas c3. (Ian Boyd/IT)
Texas c3. (Ian Boyd/IT)

Quandre Diggs roams the flat, the corners have simple “don’t get beat deep” instructions, and the dropped down safety protects the seam from the slot receiver and rallies to protect the edge against the run.

If Texas goes this route they can more easily get numbers into the box to stop the run and only have to rely on one DB to be an active participant in stopping the Mountaineers lead runs.

Ideally that role would be played by Jason Hall with Dylan Haines serving as a deep safety with 1 ½ eyes on White while Thompson and Thomas match up with the Mountaineers two deadly outside receivers.

Potential flaws with this approach include the requirement that Hall is healthy and ready to mix it up, that Jordan Hicks provide good underneath coverage against White, and the need for very strong games by the Texas corners against their toughest draw of the season.

My expectation is that Texas goes this route more often and mitigates the risk of playing without bracket coverage against White by playing soft coverage and forcing Holgorsen to patiently work his way down the field throwing underneath and trying to run the ball.

If the Texas CB tasked with stopped White has a good day, there’s reason to believe Texas can hold West Virginia under 30 points with this strategy. The Mountaineers have been less effective throwing the ball on the road in 2014 and can be prone to turnovers away from the friendly confines of Morgantown.

Winning the day with offense

The West Virginia defense is one of the better pass-defense units in the Big 12. Part of this is due to its scheme since, like Strong and Bedford, defensive coaches Gibson and Bradley aren’t good at avoiding getting their safeties in run/pass conflicts.

The Moutaineers will play 3-man rush coverage schemes, some cover 2, and lots of cover 3, just like Texas. However, they’ll also mix in tons of man-blitzes that can bring from six to eight defenders depending on how many Longhorns stay home to block.

And this is the primary concern in this game.

Beating a big man-blitz is all about anticipation by the QB, sound execution by the OL, and having WRs who can quickly beat man coverage and be safe hot throws. These haven’t exactly been Texas’ strong suits this season.

Jaxon Shipley. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jaxon Shipley. (Will Gallagher/IT)

A big part of West Virginia’s success with these schemes has been their criminally underrated secondary. It all starts with CB Daryl Worley, a 6-foot-1, 199-pound athlete who is arguably the best lockdown corner in the Big 12. Then you add a pair of good safeties in Karl Joseph and Dravon Henry and mix in an athletic linebacker corps that alternate between all coming on the blitz or all dropping into coverage and you have some problems.

The easiest way to beat them is to hit ‘em with a well-timed RB jailbreak screen, but Texas hasn’t excelled here. If Daje Johnson is healthy and ready to go here and Watson knows when to call his number, the game plan becomes much simpler.

Other straightforward solutions include John Harris dominating Worley on deep throws or Marcus Johnson waking up from a coma and doing likewise against West Virginia’s No. 2 cornerback.

Those are all difficult outcomes to confidently project and each event would have to occur often enough to overcome potential disasters that are likely to befall Saturday on plays where Swoopes’ and/or the protection don’t respond well to the Mountaineer blitz.

Texas’ saving grace in attacking this defense is that Holgorsen’s bunch aren’t exactly masterful at stopping the run. Nose tackle Kyle Rose is no Jordan Phillips and his limitations prevent this scheme from being dominant.

The linebackers are faster players who are better at dropping in coverage or running to the football than they are at meeting a player like Swaim in the hole on a lead run. One of their best players is defensive end Shaquille Riddick, a 6-foot-6, 242-pound athlete who’s more of a pass-rusher than a plugger.

If Texas can run the football, they can score enough points to beat West Virginia and secure that crucial signature win to sell tomorrow on. If not, they face a day of Swoopes’ running for his life from a blistering pass rush, some 3-and-outs, and the inevitable explosion of Mountaineer points.

Should we be optimistic?

There’s a reason that Texas has struggled with Holgorsens’ West Virginia teams, and it’s largely to do with the Mountaineers’ attacking the Longhorns with all-out game plans that challenged Texas’ inability to adopt to the option and sold out on defense to attack Longhorn weaknesses.

It’d be a fitting sign of cultural growth if Charlie Strong and his staff responded with an inspired game plan that gave Swoopes’ cues and tools to navigate the WV defense and the defense the means to control White and the passing game. A necessary step along the way towards restoring Texas football is developing a process that can dispatch the truly great spread offenses of which there are always two or three in the league in a given year.

Ultimately it will only matter if Texas’ players are finally confident and prepared enough to man-up with the Mountaineer receivers and out-muscle what should be a physically overwhelmed defensive front. Another huge factor is whether Jason Hall is healthy, there hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to how big a difference he makes in the middle of this defense.

Watch for the Longhorns’ ability to impose their will with lead zone and power runs, how Texas approaches containing White, and whether Hall is healthy enough and able to lend the extra run-support in the middle to handle Holgorsen’s spread-I formation and you’ll know whether Texas is ready to pull this thing off or not.

If they do, Strong will have a signature win, a chance at bowl eligibility, and a chance to build up some serious recruiting momentum heading towards NSD.

History major, football theorist.