WVU football: Baylor offense poses problems
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There are spread offenses in the Big 12 Conference and then there is Baylor's spread offense.
"Just wait until you see Baylor's splits," West Virginia defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said.
No one positions their outside receivers farther from the quarterback and closer to the sideline than Baylor. No one pushes their inside receivers outside as far as the Bears.
No one who plays defense for the ninth-ranked Mountaineers could believe what they saw in preparation for Saturday's noon game against No. 25 Baylor at Mountaineer Field (FX telecast).
"I didn't realize how big the field was until we started to practice against it," inside linebacker Doug Rigg said. "When I saw it, I thought, 'Wow, this could be a big problem.' "
The Bears (3-0) are like WVU (3-0) and feature a shotgun offense with three or four receivers. What's a virtual constant, no matter how many receivers are on either side of the quarterback, is how Baylor manufactures space.
The outside receivers are almost always outside the number and close to the sideline. An inside receiver is usually only a few steps closer to the quarterback.
Even in sets with three receivers on one side, Baylor is able to space them out enough to allow for a variety of routes and passes, but also enable them to run block and create creases. When three receivers are on one side and a fourth receiver is outside the numbers on the other side, the fourth is often alone in one-on-one coverage.
"It's very unique," DeForest said. "They throw a ton of deep passes, so they make you defend them vertically, but they also make you defend them horizontally when they space you out, which is a problem. When they split guys out, you've got to defend them and that opens up the middle."
The space creates a number of concerns defending the run, the pass and the plays when Baylor quarterback Nick Florence has an option to run or pass based on the look the defense presents.
Spreading out receivers expands the defense and forces safeties back, which creates space for routes and makes Baylor's deep passes dangerous. If a defense opens up to better defend the pass, the offense can run.
The predicament puts WVU's defense, and especially the linebackers, in conflict. The inside linebackers can be left alone against the run or be asked to run outside to pursue receivers.
Baylor averages 39 throws and 361.7 yards per game passing, but also 39 runs and 207 yards per game rushing.
"They throw the ball a lot and spread people out so you've got five players in the box for you and five blockers for them," linebacker Isaiah Bruce said. "The tie goes to the offense and they can run the ball that way. When you bring more people into the box, they dump it out quick to a receiver in space."
When the ball goes outside, it's often into a one-on-one situation where the defender has to quickly handle his responsibility in space. The Mountaineers missed 26 tackles against Marshall, 17 against James Madison and 11 against Maryland. They said the number has to go down again against the Bears, who expect some success on offense will come from making defenders miss and then stealing extra yards before a second defender can arrive after that.
"We have to get more people to the point of attack on a consistent basis," co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson said. "When you've got one-on-one tackling in space you're going to miss tackles because the offensive guys are moving in open space. We've got to be able to make those plays, but also get more players swarming to the point of attack so we have a better chance at getting him down."
There are ideas about defending the tactic and actually speeding up a Baylor offense that already likes to hurry, but Bruce said blitzing doesn't always work. The Mountaineers said Florence makes smart decisions when he's rushed.
"Because they spread you out, we're coming from farther away and the quarterback can still get it out quick," Bruce said.
The Mountaineers could disguise their intentions and they did a good job confusing Maryland's freshman quarterback with some pre-snap movements. The Terrapins took one delay of game and ran into a surprise blitz on other occasions.
Baylor's space can prevent that and Patterson said it forces the defense to declare before the snap.
If the Bears are having success running, WVU may move linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap. WVU doesn't want to make it obvious and let Baylor change a run to a pass before the snap, which means WVU could disguise its plan. With more space, though, the defenders must step ahead sooner and risk giving away the idea so they don't give up unnecessary yards.
If Baylor is passing well, WVU would drop back defenders, but would again try to not make it obvious. Those defenders still have to retreat early to make up the extra space and not get caught out of position before the snap.
In either situation, WVU said Baylor can figure it out before the play and that WVU can't tease Florence because there isn't enough time to recover and defend properly.
"It's smart," Rigg said. "They spread you out so much that you can see if an outside linebacker is sneaking in for a blitz, which leaves his man open outside. They can see everything. They see how many people are in the box. It's perfectly declared what the defense is in. You can't hide too much and you can't show your blitz too much without giving away your play."