WVU football: Defenses taking deep ball away from Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There was irony within the anger as Tavon Austin spoke following Saturday's 39-38 double overtime against TCU.
"From how we started at the beginning of the seasons, it looks nothing like it looks now," he said.
The Mountaineers are now absent from the polls for the first time in a year, just three games and four weeks after they reached the top five for the first time since 2007.
An explanation is found when Austin's words are untwisted.
WVU's offense has mostly vanished in this three-game losing streak. The players have come to realize defenses are doing the same things to stop the Mountaineers.
"It's the formula: Back everybody up," quarterback Geno Smith said. "Obviously, teams are very mindful of the fact we have a potent passing offense and it's very hard to throw against eight-man coverages every down."
There is almost no argument, except that Coach Dana Holgorsen says TCU dropped seven defenders and rushed four. The point remains. Defenses are content to guard against WVU's deep passes and explosive plays by giving chances to the inconsistent running game and the short passes that don't often accumulate enough to fuel a touchdown drive.
WVU has totaled just 296 yards rushing the past three games and averaged 3.1 yard per carry. Not one of the past 97 carries has gone for longer than 15 yards, which has emboldened defenses.
"As of late, teams are kind of disrespecting our run game," Smith said. "They're totally disregarding it and putting one linebacker in the box against our sets. Sometimes we go with two or three backs and they still disregard the run."
The past three opponents have dropped their second-level defenders and trusted them to cover WVU's underneath routes. They've moved their safeties deeper to protect against deep passes. The result? Four vertical throws for plays covering 20 yards or more.
Texas Tech allowed a 38-yard pass in the first quarter and a 20-yard play in the fourth. Kansas State allowed nothing for more than 13 yards.
WVU took only a few shots deep against TCU. One was 22-yard touchdown pass to J.D. Woods that Smith admits "could have been an interception." Another was intercepted when Smith badly missed while trying to force a deep pass into double coverage off a play action fake that fooled no one. Stedman Bailey scored a 25-yard touchdown on the first play of the second overtime while his defender committed pass interference.
The Horned Frogs covered everything else deep and smothered most of the shorter plays.
"The one thing we did was go to a nickel package (with an extra defensive back) so we'd have more speed on the field," Horned Frogs Coach Gary Patterson said. "It helped us because both those nickel guys and the safeties made tackles. They played more effectively than what I had hoped."
TCU has excelled through the years with a 4-2-5 and that extra defensive back. To better defend the Mountaineers (5-3, 2-3 Big 12), the Horned Frogs decided to add to their secondary and it worked. In addition to secure tackling and allowing WVU very little yardage after receptions or contact, they were credited with 11 pass breakups, the fourth-most ever by a WVU opponent.
Three players had two breakups and five others had one to account for half of Smith's 22 incomplete passes, some intended for receivers who were covered and some for receivers he looked at from start to finish.
Holgorsen said the offensive line, which he said was "bad" against TCU, has to protect Smith better when it's a three- or four-man pressure because any quarterback needs time to work through the type of coverages Smith has seen.
He did not acquit Smith, though.
"I don't think he had a very good night with that," Holgorsen said. "For whatever reason, he struggled with his reads a little bit and stuck with guys and didn't go through things like he normally does."
It was the second time in three games Smith has had at least 22 incomplete passes. He had 22 in the first three games of the season - all non-conference games. The exception in this three-game losing streak was against Kansas State, when he was 21-for-32, but for just 143 yards. WVU had 155 yards passing that night, the lowest total in Holgorsen's 13 years as a Division I coach.
The theory is spreading and will make its way to Stillwater, Okla., where WVU plays Oklahoma State in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. ABC game at Boone Pickens Stadium.
"I don't think there's any question that teams borrow ideas and borrow and don't give them back," Cowboys Coach Mike Gundy said. "I think as coaches evaluate tape and put a game plan together on both sides of the ball, they're always looking to see what was successful or what plays had success against the team they're playing. If it fits your style of play, I don't think there's any question teams will take it and run with it."
Much like WVU, which has seen Smith slump and be labeled "average" by Holgorsen Saturday night, the Cowboys (5-3, 3-2) have quarterback questions. Gundy pulled freshman Wes Lundt from Saturday's loss to Kansas State and was happy with junior Clint Chelf's work in relief. He hasn't decided who will start against WVU.
The Mountaineers have to start breaking the tendency that's not only beaten them the past three games, but that's changed the way they feel about themselves.
"The beginning of the year, we came in and didn't have any fear," Austin said. "Now I feel like we press too much and we're scared to make mistakes."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.