The Blueprint To Beat Baylor
Normally at this time of the week we do the PRE-GAME RUN THRU, but this week I wanted to do something a little more focused. West Virginia is headed into a hornet’s nest in Waco as an underdog by the biggest point spread they’ve seen in a decade (28.5). Vegas thinks Baylor is 4 touchdowns better than WVU but I’m not so sure. Come along as we take a look at what WVU needs to do to pull off the historic upset.
I’m going to run through a small collection of points – things WVU needs to do if they’re to come out on top. After that we’ve got a drop-in from Jed. He’s been watching tape all week and may have found some chinks in that Baylor armor. Also be sure to swing over to WVUSports.com where Jed’s latest “Hot Reads” column should post sometime Saturday.
The Best Defense Is A Good Offense
Baylor is known for a prolific offense that ranks first in the country by nearly 10 points, putting up 69.7 per game and most of the focus is on how WVU will slow it down. Ironically the best tool the Mountaineers will have at their disposal to bring the Bears back down to earth isn’t even on their defensive side of the ball – it’s their offense.
Traditional thinking would tell you that WVU needs to establish the run and grind out long drives. That would be great and all, but to paraphrase Rick Pitino, “Jeff Braun isn’t walking through that door.” The WVU offensive line has been sub par in getting the kind of push required to consistently run block, so while a potent ground attack would be great, hoping for one wouldn’t be terribly realistic.
Fortunately for WVU the passing attack of Dana Holgorsen employs a variety of quick throws and screens that are really just glorified run plays. From the “hot potato” toss to a swing screen that Charles Sims turned into such a big gain last week, short high percentage throws can keep the chains moving while also getting WVU’s playmakers out in space away from the trenches. Clint Trickett needs to be accurate and WVU WRs and RBs need to make catches – even the small ones that seem of little consequence. The WVU offense hasn’t shown much of a propensity for big scoring plays, so every little 3 yard catch will matter. 3rd and 3 looks a lot different than 3rd and 6.
The Signal Caller Says:
“Baylor’s Art Briles is pretty conservative in general, employing a Cover 4 defense and some Cover 2. These should allow room to work short crosses over the middle. They’ll give WVU the little plays, make them drive down the field and wait for them to screw up. If you do find success though, an opportunity could open up. In the past I’ve seen Briles get frustrated and immediately shift to a Cover Zero, leaving Baylor with no over the top help and putting a premium on disrupting the play up front with pressure. If WVU gets that opening and exploits it, it could change the whole complexion of the game.”
There’s not a lot of rocket surgery to this one – the Mountaineer defense has to tackle, and tackle soon. Baylor’s receivers tend to do a great proportion of their damage after the catch, so WVU can’t afford to take bad angles or go for kill shots that allow players to bounce off and keep moving. Much like Mountaineer mascot John Kimble, they’ve got to hit fast and bring those Bears down quick.
The good news is this defense has done a pretty good job of that this season and the turnaround from last year is mind-boggling. The only play that sticks out to me where guys took bad angles and missed someone was the long Oklahoma State score last week from Josh Stewart. Baylor has about 4 guys with the ability to do that, so WVU can’t whiff on any of them.
When they do tackle, Karl Joseph and company need to get their money’s worth. What’s been striking about watching this 2013 defense is the force they manage to put into hits. Even when they were supposedly getting torched by Maryland, Deon Long and Stefon Diggs paid dearly for their yardage with both leaving the game for injury at some point. Baylor has put up a collection of gaudy numbers against teams that are physically outmatched. It would be interesting to see how they respond to being physically challenged with a few hard sticks. Alligator arms can be a terrible thing.
The Signal Caller Says:
“Baylor puts the ‘spread’ in spread offense. Their splits are as wide as you’ll ever see and they force you into a position where you have to match up on the outside and make great individual plays to disrupt that they’re doing. They’ll do things like get 3 on 3 over on the edge, occupying a pair of defenders with a blocker each and letting their playmaker catch a screen and beat the last defender. When WVU safeties and linebackers come up, they’ve got to win those matchups. Beat your block, blow up a screen, hit the ball carrier early. Get your hands up and knock down a pass or two early and you’ve taken away one of Baylor’s preferred weapons, not to mention shortened their playbook by making them face 3rd and long.”
Don’t Get Combo’d
Ask any boxer and they’ll tell you the most damaging thing isn’t getting hit by one big punch – it’s getting hit by a combination of punches. It’s a cumulative effect, and the series of shots can do exponentially more damage that one hit ever could. You’re hit once and then twice and then three times and oh, look where did that nice man counting to 10 about 5 miles above me come from?
In many ways, fast offenses like Baylor and Oregon work the same way. It’s not the first score that gets you – it’s the fourth one. When the Bears inevitably score, WVU will need to hang tough. They don’t have to answer every score with one of their own (at least not immediately) but they can’t go 3 and out and hand the ball back to a lathered up Bears O or even worse turn it over.
This is an area WVU has not done well at so far this season. In fact, if you look in the all the games but Georgia State, WVU has never answered a score with a score on their following offensive possession. Even worse, 5 times they have actually turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. One of those – against Maryland – was a pick 6. Fortunately the WVU defense held tough and didn’t allow a touchdown on any of those 5 possessions and even turned one into a score of their own (Ishmael Banks’ pick 6 against OSU). Three times they went 3 and out and another 3 times they managed only a lone first down.
WVU has to do better here. The Mountaineer defense has been downright heroic in stemming the tide when the WVU offense packs it in, but that’s simply not realistic to do against Baylor. If Clint Trickett and the WVU offense can’t sustain some drives to keep the prolific Baylor O from running downhill, it could get ugly. This is a WVU team that has shown little to no propensity for fighting back from multi-score deficits and the best way to keep out of a hole is to never fall in it in the first place.
The Signal Caller Says:
“Baylor has made a habit of putting away their opponents early, scoring 13 first quarter TDs in just 3 games. Yes, you read that right- the Bears are averaging 30 ppg in the FIRST QUARTER. So they haven’t even played a second quarter all year where the opponent has had a chance. Makes you wonder how they’ll respond to some pressure. WVU can set the tone early, but they’ll need to play their best quarter of football of the year. The Mountaineers don’t have to play a perfect game, but a perfect first quarter could get things headed in the right direction.”
First off a quick self-scold. Earlier this week I sang the praises of the WVU defense and in the course of blubbering over Shaq Rowell and Karl Joseph made a mammoth oversight. Will Clarke has been every bit the force of Rowell on that line and deserves the same credit – heck maybe a little more. I mean, the guy is only ranked in the top 30 nationally for sacks – he’s tied for 29th at 3. (Thanks to reader Alan Kaufax for emailing and pointing out the glaring oversight.)
Will and Company will be more important than ever as they need to get the type of push that can keep Heisman candidate Lache Seastrunk from getting up to full speed. Make him stop and shift laterally or even better yet bump it outside to find running room. The best way to stop one of the best open field runners in America is to simply not let him get into the open field. We talked earlier about the importance of tackling and that still stands, but as Sun Tzu once said “you must tackle the enemy running back before he starts running.” OK, maybe I made that up.
The Signal Caller Says:
“Another bi-product of that Baylor spread is they pull defenders away from the middle and create interior running lanes for Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin. They’ll employ a quick double team on the O line and pop that seam. Will Clarke, Shaq Rowell and Kyle Rose simply can’t let that happen. They’re going to have to hold their own even in the face of a pair of blockers long enough to close that gap and allow Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber and company to come to the rescue. It might not be fair to ask one guy to take on two, but I guarantee you WVU’s D linemen are the strongest Baylor has faced all year. Blow one up early and get in their heads.”
“He’s Not A Machine, He’s A Man!”
One of my favorite moments of the Rocky series is in Rocky IV when Rocky finally gets to Ivan Drago and manages to cut him with a quick cross in an early round. Drago staggers backwards and is visibly shaken – as is the hostile crowd. The trainer Duke realizes the moment and screams this line to Rocky from the corner. In one fell swoop, Rocky has proven that even the formidable Drago and his near 2K PSI punching power is human. Up to this point Drago seemed above the fray. Whatever the boxer version is of hanging up 70 points on another FBS program in the first 3 quarters, that’s exactly what Drago had been doing to opponents thus far. He seemed unbeatable up until Rocky proved he bled like anyone else.
WVU needs a ‘Rocky’ moment on Saturday.
They need it for a host of reasons. They need to get in the visiting fans’ heads and give them that special little bad feeling in the pit of the stomach that WVU fans know so well. Take the air out of that stadium with one or two big plays early and keep them nervous all night. They need to prove to themselves that this Baylor team isn’t some offensive juggernaut sent from outer space to terrorize us, but simply an offense that’s had 3 really good weeks against 3 really crappy teams that have combined for 2 wins against FBS competition (one against UConn, one against Wake Forest). Most importantly, they need Baylor to realize this.
See, we WVU fans know all about being the shiny new thing. The point-piling darling. Both last year and in the midst of the Rich Rodriguez run we were piling up points and yards by the hundreds. Had QBs putting up video game numbers and skill players moving hither and yon unmolested to paydirt like it was a drill. We were the 70 year old lady cackling madly as the slot machine spilled more points than we could count into our palms. Everybody was watching and cheering and loved us and we were the best and couldn’t be stopped and oh, you’re in trouble here we come!!!
Until we weren’t.
Fact is it can all unravel in an instant. On the road or at home, under the lights or in the noon sun, once you’ve lost that mojo it can be hell to get back. A couple failed third downs, an inopportune turnover or bad break and before you know it the murmuring spreads through the stands and players are casting lost glances around the field. Guys are thinking instead of acting and then they’re scrambling instead of thinking and then it’s all falling through your fingers like smoke and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Baylor’s just about due for one of those moments, don’t you think?
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to shoot me an email at email@example.com and follow me on Twitter: @abpriddy. I tweet throughout the game and love a little back-and-forth. Also check out some more of my work over at SmokingMusket.com where I’m a staff writer.