Mountaineer Gameday: WVU makes opponents prepare for everything’
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two Saturdays ago, West Virginia entered a home game against Baylor knowing Shawne Alston could not play and that Dustin Garrison could not yet be the player he was last season, when he led the team in rushing as a freshman before tearing his left ACL in December.
The Mountaineers were left with one able and reliable running back and Coach Dana Holgorsen knew better than to lean too heavily on Andrew Buie, a sophomore who had a habit of getting hit hard last season and couldn't stay healthy as a result.
The nation saw Geno Smith throw the ball 51 times and set school records with 656 yards and eight touchdowns passing against Baylor. Defensive coordinators saw something else.
The Mountaineers featured a fire-receiver set. This was new, even if the formation was not. In the past, WVU had used an empty backfield with Smith in the shotgun and five pass-catchers spread out around the line of scrimmage. One of those pass-catchers was a running back. Sometimes there were two.
What WVU debuted against Baylor was a set with five actual receivers going out to catch passes. Necessity had given birth to another innovation.
"We just didn't have any running backs," Holgorsen said. "They were all beaten up. I told you guys I'll never use that as an excuse, but if we don't have any running backs, we'll make it work with receivers. If we don't have any receivers, we'll make it work with running backs."
It worked wonderfully against Baylor. The Bears had to back off their blitzes and were made to pay for man coverage. They also had a hard time adjusting to outside receiver Stedman Bailey playing inside on the opposite side of inside receiver Tavon Austin.
"It kind of screwed up their communication on defense," Smith said. "You could tell. They were trying to bracket him and put as many guys in his area as possible, but if you put him in the slot in the five-wide formation, it forces them to put him in a matchup where they don't have an advantage."
Last week WVU went to Austin, Texas, to play the Texas Longhorns and again were without Alston. Garrison was better, though, and the run game was a key part of the game plan so the Mountaineers could make sure the Texas defensive ends and linebackers wouldn't consistently guess pass and blitz Smith.
How much did the Mountaineers trust the run? Buie carried 31 times and Garrison three more. They even built in a flea flicker to use once they established the run. With Buie's 207 yards rushing and the way he dominated the fourth quarter as proof, WVU had running backs that game.
And yet WVU also had the five-receiver sets. They weren't used as frequently, but they were no less effective and Holgorsen even called on it on a fourth-down play that turned into a 40-yard touchdown pass to Austin.
The fifth-ranked Mountaineers (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) head to Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1) for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. Big 12 game (ABC telecast). If they roll with the five-receiver set at Jones AT&T Stadium, then they're convinced they've found something.
The Red Raiders rarely blitz and Holgorsen said it happens on about eight percent of the downs.
They like to cover and make teams execute to beat them and WVU's simple counter could be more of the five-receiver sets. That would widen the defense and force the Red Raiders to be good at covering something that's been hard to stop.
In the meantime, Smith isn't being pressured much and his receivers have time to beat the coverage while Smith has time to find the open receiver.
"We'll change things from week to week formation wise and movement wise, but we're a routine group, a routine-based, repetition-based offense," West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "We're not going to get too far from what we do and what's been effective.
"At the same time, the more you change the looks, the more it keeps the defense where they don't get comfortable."
Here's the trick about this possible leverage: There is no trick. WVU was already using the formation with the running back or running backs, and is still doing the same now, even as a complement to the five-receiver set.
Either way, the routes are the same, even with five receivers. There's nothing new to learn. The personnel is different, but the outside receivers are still outside receivers and the inside receivers are still inside receivers.
The one change is Bailey moving inside, but he learned that position first with Holgorsen last year before moving outside and mastering that.
Holgorsen's offense is simple and guided by a simple principle: If it works, keep doing it. The five-receiver set is working and it doesn't cause problems when WVU prepares.
The problem resides on the other side of the ball. It's about how a team quickly adapts to Bailey on the inside and addresses the reality the defense can't double-team or pay especially close attention to both Austin and Bailey without opening up the outside for big gains.
"It gives them something else to think about," Dawson said. "There were probably a lot of factors why we went that route, but probably, in my opinion, none of them had as much to do with it as moving Stedman around."
This is all especially important as WVU gets deeper into the schedule and teams get more familiar with the Mountaineers, what they do this season and what Holgorsen has done in the past.
Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma run variations of the Air Raid offense, with Holgorsen working at Oklahoma State and with Mike Leach at Texas Tech after Leach had been the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
Kansas State and Iowa State have sound defenses and good defensive coaches - including Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads, who WVU fans remember from coaching up Pitt's defense in the 13-9 upset in 2007.
Little advantages can be big bonuses and the Mountaineers won't feel sorry.
"No, I don't actually," Smith said. "I know they're going to come up with some crazy schemes we've got to prepare for. I'm pretty sure they'll watch the film and say, 'They've got weapons everywhere and a quarterback who can make all the throws. We've got to prepare for everything.' "