The first half of our game against the West Virginia Mountaineers was easily the best half of football we played all year. We played mostly sound, fundamental defense and had a great offensive gameplan to put the aggressive Mountaineer defense on their heels. Let's dive into what turned into an extremely intense game. Here's a link to the full game if you have the time.
Here we have a 3rd and one for the Red Raider defense very early in the game.
WVU is lined up in a two tight-end formation with a fullback and a halfback. The only indication of an off-balanced set is Kevin White, who is split out to the right of the formation. Unfortunately for us, we have to respect the threat that Kevin White is on the outside, and we have Nigel Bethel and Keenon Ward playing far from the line of scrimmage. We normally could single up a man out there and be fine, but Kevin White is a whole different animal. It's one thing to give up a first down to a quick slant when the offense is in a running formation, it's a whole other thing to give up a deep pass early in the game, which is what White is famous for. Ward is simply playing too far off the line to be the extra man in the box that we need to stop the running play. We must respect the ability of Kevin White here, and we give up an easy first down due to alignment. The linebackers get good penetration, but ultimately the fullback kicking out the edge player gave Shell enough of a hole to scamper through for a first down. Ward is coming so hard downhill in order to make the play for a loss that Shell is easily able to give him the slip and fall forward for an easy first. This play shows the essence of our defensive gameplan: if West Virginia is going to beat us, we're going to try and force someone not named Kevin White to step up and make a play.
The next important play is a 3rd and 6 on the Red Raider's 26. We need a stop here to hold the Mountaineers to a field goal. If we let the high powered offense of WVU get loose too early, we could be in for a very long day.
We're in a strange front on this play. Despite the Mountaineers only needing 6 yards to get a first down, we do not have a man in a three point stance at all. Once again, we have Keenon Ward ridiculously deep to deal with the threat of WVU's exceptional wide receiving corps, and he is joined by Josh Keys. West Virginia should know by now that we are very vulnerable to off-tackle runs due to the aggressive nature of our defensive ends and linebackers, and seeing that we're going to play our safeties deep means that the obvious play call is a running play. Effectively, we have 6 men in the box against their 6 and Trickett, The play looks like it is designed to go to the strong side of the Mountaineer formation, but Smallwood bounces it out to the weak side. At this point every Texas Tech fan has seen this before, a mad scramble to the ball leads to one quick cutback lane, and we give up 10+ yards. Fortunately for us, JJ Gaines is right there waiting to shut down the cutback lane. If Gaines doesn't make this play, we might give up a touchdown due to the speed of Smallwood and the positioning of our defense. But Gaines stays patient, stays at home, and we come up with a third down stop against a running play, which is something that doesn't happen very often for us.
Now let's look at our defensive gameplan when Kevin White actually does get the ball.
WVU is lined up in that same pistol formation with the fullback at the same level as the QB. Once again, Nigel Bethel and Keenon Ward are playing over the top of Kevin White, attempting to limit his deep plays and potentially his yards after the catch. Ward gets sucked in a little on the play action fake, but takes a good angle to get back out to White on the edge. White runs a "stop" route, getting Bethel to bite a tad bit on the deep fake. For a receiver the caliber of White, that split second bite is all he needs. He nearly shakes Bethel clean off of him, fortunately he was able to get a piece of him so that the other defenders could help him mop up. It's very clear at this point that we are going to attempt to contain White and not let him beat us over the top. Having one of the youngest secondaries in the nation doesn't help either, so we're going to play White with at least extra attention from a safety.
For our first offensive play, let's look at a 4th and 2 for the Red Raiders.
The Mountaineers are matching our spread offense by only having 5 in the box, but they're also playing 5 yards off the slot receiver, Bradley Marquez. I don't understand this personally, Texas Tech is known for it's slant routes on short yardage situations, why is he playing that far off a man that could easily dive behind or in between the linebackers to catch an easy 1st down? Marquez now has the freedom to run more or less whatever route he wants, or clear a path for Jakeem Grant to make an easy play. Marquez chooses the latter, running his man out of the play and clearing out the linebacker's peripheral vision. Grant beats his man to the now-cleared middle of the field and makes the play for a first down. The play was made by allowing Marquez to clear out the middle of the field with his route.
Here we have a great play call that ends up being a touchdown.
Normally when Texas Tech lines up in this formation and has a man go in motion in it, that man is Justin Stockton and we're giving him the ball on a sweep. At this point in the season, it's pretty widely known what we're going to do when this happens. There's a wrinkle in the operation though: Stockton isn't even on the field. By doing something as simple as switching out personnel for a play, we gain the element of surprise on the aggressive Mountaineer defense. The linebackers are a tad bit slow to react to the play due to #8 not being the guy on the pitch sweep, we get a good block on the edge and catch a safety flat-footed, and Lauderdale is off to the races. This play is encouraging for a number of reasons. We block this play exceptionally. Lauderdale makes a great move to stay on his feet and score. It shows a little innovation from Kingsbury, which is sometimes all you need to break a huge play. But my favorite part of this play was seeing Reshod Fortenberry 30 yards down the field on the opposite side of the field from where he started, attempting to throw a block when arguably none was necessary. I remember watching this play and thinking to myself, "Okay, we came to play today. This is going to be a game after all". We really brought it in all facets of this game in the first half, and this play highlights that.
A huge strength of West Virginia was their ability to run the draw play exceptionally. Typically, we struggle heavy against the run, so a team that excels at a facet of running the ball is very dangerous for us, especially with the added attention we had to give White. Fortunately, we started to figure out how to play the run this game.
WVU is out of their pistol formation, splitting three receivers out to the left on the wide side of the field. At this point in the game, we are getting great pressure on WVU QB Clint Trickett, giving him a lot to think about while he's waiting for someone to get open in the pocket. There isn't much better way to counter an effective pass rush than a draw play to get the defensive line to hesitate a little bit in their future pass rushes. Fortunately for us, both Pete Robertson and Andre Ross recognize the draw almost immediately. The screen fake by Trickett had worked very effectively, drawing Justis Nelson into the backfield and Keenon Ward and Austin Stewart away from the middle of the field. In what becomes a theme for this game, if we don't recognize the draw on the defensive line, this play is going for a lot more than it did. Fortunately we are well prepared of the Mountaineer's tendencies, and make the play for a loss. At this point in the game we are playing very well schematically. Players are doing their assignments, and the coaches are putting them in good positions to complete those assignments.
We pick the game up again at a 3rd and 3 deep in our own territory, which a month or so ago against Arkansas meant a free first down for the offense.
We put Pete Robertson's hand in the dirt, essentially turning the 3-4 defense Mike Smith runs into a 4-3. Earlier in the season against Arkansas, our linebackers would have shot directly into the backfield regardless of a blitz call or regular call. This would allow the running back to simply cut away from them, or the linemen to pick them up along with their defensive linemen. It would gum up the middle of the defense, which is good, but no one could get out of the middle to make the tackle, which is ultimately a very bad thing. Sam Eguavoen stays patient at the line of scrimmage, and when the hole opens he fills it, not before. This leads him on a beeline directly to the running back, allowing us to make the stop in the backfield. The next play, Justis Nelson makes a great play on the ball, and the Tech defense gets the turnover on downs deep in it's own territory, which is something that most of us never thought we'd hear again after some of the early season defensive woes.
Late in the first half, we have a chance to put West Virginia nearly down for the count.
They line up with only two high safeties, which Webb sees, but late into the snap count, another safety drops out. Webb assumes that the crossing route in the middle will draw the attention of the right safety, leaving Marquez wide open for the fade route. Unfortunately for us, WVU has an extra safety over the top to help with the fade route who easily intercepts the ball. Once again, we don't throw people under the bus here, but this is a pretty big error. We have a chance to go up 28-10 against a good team, and we end up pocketing a 21-10 lead instead.
Later on, we kill our own momentum with an ill-advised 4th down play call
I don't agree with the play call itself, not the decision to go for it on 4th. I love the aggressive mentality of our offense, I just think we could've audibled out of this one. West Virginia has been performing admirably all day against the run despite having only 5 or 6 in the box, and we hand them a run when they stack 7 or 8 in the box. The off tackle run would have worked against a defensive alignment with less people at the line of scrimmage, but the WVU linebacker was in the perfect position to make the play in the backfield. This is the beginning of the massive momentum shift that swing in the favor of the Mountaineers.
We pick the game back up in a crucial 3rd and goal for the Red Raiders, up 24-13. We have another chance to take a 3-possession lead.
We're lined up with two running backs in the backfield to help offset the massive amount of pressure the Mountaineers bring every third down. Sure enough, right off the bat the West Virginia players come screaming into the backfield. Davis Webb's instant reaction is to throw the fade route to Dylan Cantrell, which isn't an awful decision. Jakeem Grant is relatively open over the middle, although he has a safety closing in on him fast. The other receiver is completely covered. Webb simply had nowhere to go with the ball. It's easy to blame the quarterback, but man WVU just played some great defense on this play. Ultimately Cantrell can't come down with the ball, but you can't fault the decision making by Webb. The Mountaineer defense is simply waking up.
Now it's the Mountaineer's offense and Dana Holgorson's turn to wake up.
WVU finally exploits the coverage we've been giving Kevin White for a deep pass. Earlier in the game they were attempting to abuse it with the short passing and rushing game, but now Holgorson elects to throw the deep ball. The inside receiver runs towards the middle, and the shallow defender lets him go right by under the assumption that the safety will help him over the top. White runs a fade route, drawing the attention of Keenon Ward, who has been comboing him with Nigel Bethel all day. This leaves a wide open receiver with no defenders in the middle of the field, they've all been drawn elsewhere through the makeup of the play. This is a great playcall by Holgorson in the situation to help get his team back in the game.
In the 4th quarter, Holgorson reverts back to his screen tendencies and we make him pay for it.
Nigel Bethel absolutely attacks the blocker, pushing him back into the backfield. This stalls Kevin White long enough for Keenon Ward to get to the ball and make a play on the All-American. Making the play even more clutch, this is on a 3rd and three. We force the Mountaineers to punt in a situation where they were driving to tie the game up.
On the next drive, it appears that we've blown the game wide open.
West Virginia stops being aggressive, and we really make them pay. There's not much to analyze here, it's a simple run play. What is important about this play is the one-two punch we will have returning next year with DeAndre Washington and Justin Stocton, and potentially Felton. This is late in the game. The defense is tired. Insert fresh running back who has speed to burn. Touchdown, easy. He was barely touched on this play. Stockton is already dangerous in the open field, but put him on a field with all nearly exhausted players and it's a whole different story. Utilizing these impact players that we have well will be a huge point of interest next season.
After Kevin White beats Nigel Bethel over the top for a touchdown, we find ourselves at a critical point in the game. A touchdown or a field goal puts the game nearly out of reach for the Mountaineers, and we need a first down.
Obviously I can't see what Webb sees in this play, but from hindsight audibling into a running play on 3rd and 8 doesn't seem wise. Maybe we were trying to recreate the last play with Stockton, maybe we thought the safeties would bite on the receivers, but either way we give the ball back to the Mountaineers with way too much time left. This isn't good. West Virginia has scored relatively easily the past two times they've been on the field, and there is still 5 minutes on the clock.
Lost in the anarchy of the final field goal was the epic goal line stand put on by the Texas Tech defense that almost held the Mountaineers at the one yard line on 4th down.
We almost had them, too. If Keenon Ward comes in a little bit to the right, we stop Shell short of the goal line and get the ball back only needing one or two first downs to run out the clock. Unfortunately, we don't, and the rest is history.
It wouldn't be a Film Room Friday without a gif of something bad happening and a link to a sad song, so here's the final result of this game.
"In the arms ooooofffff an annnngelllllllll.... Fly awayyyyyyyy"
In all seriousness, we showed some serious progress this game, especially in the first half. If we played like we did the first half this entire season we might have had a different ultimate outcome.