The 2015 West Virginia defense was secretly quite good. Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers faced a brutal schedule that did them no favors, endured an early season injury to their best defender (safety Karl Joseph, later drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders), and only finished 8-5 (4-5 in the Big 12) in a disappointing season.
In 2016 the schedule worked out much more easily for them and they now face Oklahoma, TCU, and Baylor at home in Morgantown rather than on the road early in the year before injuries have really set in. They faced Seth Russell, Trevone Boykin, and Baker Mayfield last year, may have been the only Big 12 team to have to do so, and faced all three on the road. They’re also returning QB Skyler Howard, an improving young cast of wideouts, and a now veteran OL that’s brought a physical dimension to their attack.
The expected problem for 2016 was on defense, where DC Tony Gibson was initially facing the task of starting over with seven new starters (six in the defensive backfield of his 3-3-5) and then eight new starters when star safety Dravon Askew-Henry was lost for the year in preseason camp. A brilliant 2015 secondary that drew praise from this column early in the year is completely turned over with five new faces back there. Their very solid linebacker corps is also totally rebuilt and the Mountaineers are relying on a new nose tackle to anchor the DL.
With a patchwork cast of transfers and inexperienced players, it seemed likely that the Mountaineers would be taking a step back on defense this year. A big step back. That may prove true in time or it may not, but as always, Tony Gibson is embracing the extremes of playing defense in the Big 12 and putting out a very interesting unit once again.
The extremes of playing in the Big 12
Playing defense in the Big 12 is very difficult. Fans of other conferences love to point and laugh at the state of play in the league but Charlie Strong, architect of some brilliant defenses over his career, is probably going to be fired from Texas for failing to translate his defensive success into the Big 12. Before him, Manny Diaz struggled for a year and two games and was fired, then went on to produce top ranked defenses again at Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, and now Miami.
This league chews up defensive coordinators and spits them out on a regular basis.
Here are the defenses in the Big 12 ranked 1-10 over the last three years by S&P, which aims to adjust for opponents and pace:
These numbers make it clear enough that playing defense in the Big 12 is a tough game, and there are clear reasons for this. Just a few:
You will always have defenders isolated in space in the Big 12
There are no schemes that can protect a team from seeing their defenders be put in situations where they have to win battles against good athletes in space. The best schemed defenses look to avoid putting their worst defenders in bad spots but if a DC can even accomplish that regularly then he’s doing a good job.
Between all the RPOs (run/pass options), wide splits, and mobile QBs, defenses end up getting stressed to the max in terms of how much space they have to cover.
The simple vs complex balance is exceptionally difficult to calibrate.
The offenses in the Big 12, save for Kansas State, are very simple in how they attack defenses. They all tend to lean on spacing, tempo, and some option concepts to do the heavy lifting for their players and they’ll nail down just a few concepts really well and make you prove you can out-execute them.
The most challenging thing for defenses is that it’s much easier to build an effective spread passing attack then it is to defend one. There’s also a great deal of challenge for the defense in facing fast tempo because every defender is expected to pursue the ball to the whistle every snap but the same expectations don’t exist for the offense. This tends to wear out defensive linemen and it makes it difficult for the defense to get lined up, receive the call from their defensive coordinator, and then play mistake-free football.
When the mistakes inevitably occur, the spacing and the speed of the offenses tends to make them hurt really badly.
Most defensive coordinators in the Big 12 end up simplifying their schemes and systems and hoping they can get 11 guys on the field at a time that know what they’re doing and can at least make the offense earn what they get.
Embracing the extremes the West Virginia way
Tony Gibson isn’t interested in hanging on for dear life, or trying to field ultra-sound defenses that can out-execute Big 12 offenses. He wants to protect his players from getting repeatedly isolated in space and he wants to attack offenses.
His approach for doing so is with a 3-3-5 (or 8-3 you might say) defense that embraces “all or nothing” schemes that shift the eight players in the defensive backfield to the extreme areas of the field that spread offenses are looking to attack.
West Virginia has a pretty rich variety of defensive calls, but they tend to rely on two main defenses for accomplishing their aims. One is to play three-deep/five-under max coverages, the other is to bring a zero blitz.
In the former, the Mountaineers avoid putting their defenders in space because they are absolutely flooding the deep zones and passing windows with athletes. The DL is left exposed to double teams against both protections and run blocking schemes but Gibson makes up for it in his other base call.
In the zero blitzes, the secondary are left on islands playing man coverage across the board while the linebackers all come rushing on the blitz. Essentially, linebackers in the West Virginia defense are typically either dropping underneath to outnumber the passing game or firing into the backfield to overwhelm the OL.
In the same way that Art Briles’ “veer and shoot” offense shreds defenses by making them defend extreme ends of the field from extreme stress (vertical option routes and a two-back, power run game), Gibson’s “all or nothing” approach to defense forces offenses to account for either a max coverage or an all-out blitz.
Let’s go on a three-down journey through life navigating West Virginia’s defensive calls. They’re playing Kansas State and it’s early in the game on the Wildcat’s initial drive. K-State has just secured a first down thanks one of their patented plays where the QB is running a single-wing, lead run where he also has the option to throw a quick slant.
1st and 10
Kansas State is in a two-back set with the slot in the boundary, a pretty standard Big 12 offensive scheme useful for running route combinations to the short side of the field or else giving the RB or single-side WR lots of space to work in to the field.
West Virginia is rotating between their very normal, cover 1 defense they often play on standard downs and their rather unique Tampa-2 scheme that they actually end up calling.
They play their Tampa-2 which uses the free safety like a normal Tampa-2 defense would use the middle linebacker. But while a Tampa-2 MLB is initially looking to get depth in the event of a pass so he can defend the seams, the Mountaineer free safety is already playing with 8-10 yards of depth so if he reads run he can immediately trigger downhill and be an extra defender in the alley in a real hurry.
Kansas State is trying to run zone off-tackle but they miss blocks on the nose and sam linebacker and then the field corner ends up joining the party as well.
2nd and 13
Now Kansas State is in real trouble, because they’re facing obvious passing downs and they have to navigate the risk of calling a slower developing play designed to beat max coverage when West Virginia might be bringing a big blitz.
The Mountaineers end up playing a simple cover-1 call with a single blitzing LB but it might as well have been a zero blitz as will linebacker David Long fires into the gap left open by the pulling guard and puts K-State further behind the chains.
Cover-1 is a nice change-up call for the Mountaineers because it overlaps heavily with the zero blitzes (same man coverage only now with a deep safety) and their max coverages (free safety is still in the deep middle but now he’s not flanked).
This defensive scheme needs two crucial pieces to work, the first is a cast of DBs that can play man coverage for the zero blitzes and the second is linebackers that can get home when Gibson fires them into the line of scrimmage in their blitzes.
The Mountaineers do get caught out of position by run plays on standard downs from time to time, other times their DL simply get worn down from trying to bring so many three-man rushes, obviously there are also occasions where their DBs get beat in man coverage. However, they have a knack for making up for it by inflicting big tackles for loss or turnovers from their blitzes. Anyways, now it’s...
...3rd and 18
Now the Mountaineers are in a max coverage, not a Tampa-2 three-deep call with a flat-footed free safety but a true three-deep/five-under coverage with dime personnel (3-2-6) on the field. There are zero passing windows for K-State QB Jesse Ertz, and he quickly finds that scrambling around for time doesn’t increase his options but only shrinks the field and invites linebackers to come encourage quicker decision-making.
Ertz completed 10 of 30 pass attempts in this game for 166 yards (5.5 yards per attempt), zero TDs, and one INT. The K-State run game also struggled to get going (120 yards, 2.9 yards per carry) thanks in large part to the eight tackles for loss inflicted by the Mountaineer defense.
West Virginia is still working out some kinks on defense with all these new starters and are still nailing down the starting eight in the defensive backfield (David Long won the will linebacker job after the season started). Potential star and strong “spur” safety Kyzir White (brother to Kevin and Ka’raun) is still learning the system and getting acclimated while the DL needs to develop some depth. All that said, this is a very difficult unit to prepare for and execute against because they aren’t playing the game the same way as everyone else. What’s more, they’re only going to improve over the course of the season.
When you draw them in Morgantown in front of one of their home crowds and your own OC is feeling the pressure of keeping up with Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid on the scoreboard? They could become truly dangerous. Amazingly enough, West Virginia is a team to watch out for in the Big 12 this season.