RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Why do I feel like I just lived out Captain Benjamin Willard slaying Colonel Kurtz in the murky jungles of Vietnam? I mean, has anyone ever felt worse about their Top 10 ranked, undefeated football team? I woke up Sunday morning feeling like I was forced to take 26 shots of tequila before being kicked repeatedly in the nuts 150 times. All that... after a victory.
Do we really have cause to be this discouraged? 4-0 is 4-0 right? Style points don't really matter when you play in the SEC. I have yet to see a defense for any school, in any conference, that matches ours (naysayers will point to the week 1 letdown, but we know better). I have yet to see a special teams unit from any school, in any conference that matches ours (All-American FG kicker, All-American Punt/Kick Returner, Dynamo Punters, tremendous kick coverage and now we're blocking kicks?!). Surely we can go 2000 Ravens all over their asses, right (ROCK, FLAG AND EAAAAAGGGLLLLLEEE)?
Well, it just wasn't pretty. There's no two ways about it. I'm not even sure this qualifies as win ugly. It was more like just... win. It just sorta happened. As if it were destined to occur by the football gods many moons ago. There's no way West Virginia could ever come into our house and beat us... right?
This was the 3rd week in a row that despite the fact that we didn't exactly crush the opponent, yet I never felt like the outcome was in serious doubt. Maybe others felt differently. The previous two we did hold much more comfortable leads, but look at what WVU's offense could muster.
Offensively, we were a hot mess. Just look at this:
Pass, Pass, Pass, Run, Pass, Run, Pass, Pass, Run, Run, Run, Run, Pass, Run, Run, Run, Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass
Of our 21 plays in the first half, 12 were pass attempts (one of them turned into a JJ scramble). I know it's not entirely fair considering I'm giving no heed to down and distance, but consider also that the four runs right there in the middle were after the fumble recovery, so pretty obvious decision. For a team that has shown the ability to dominate on the ground, why not come out running and use that to set up the pass? Why are we coming out with the intentions of throwing to set up the run (as it seems)? I think this is the type of play calling that really makes me more worrisome about the offense than the performance of any single player.
There was just no rhythm and seemingly no rhyme or reason to the way our offense operated. The three consecutive passes with 10:41 left in the 4th and the ball near midfield while nursing a six-point lead was absolutely puzzling. One, maybe? Two, if you see something. But three is a row? Just mangled clock management by the coaching staff.
Defensively, we looked stellar once again. WVU's longest drive of the night was eight plays for 67 yards, and that was aided by two 15 yard personal fouls, so really that's a six-play, 37-yard drive. Their only other notable drive was set up by good field position after a pathetic attempt from our offense and ended up at 10 plays and 53 yards, most of which came on a 19-yard pass. It resulted in a TD on 3rd down after Mathieu fell down AND still ended up with okay coverage, just a little behind.
We made a nice adjustment to the option game they were hurting us on a bit. We played the pitch in the first half. 2nd half we attacked Gino Smith and basically killed it from ever being effective again. Also adjusted to them picking on the LBers in coverage. Chavis walked up a safety instead of playing them so far off and let them hammer down on those short routes. Taylor and Eugene both made nice plays on a couple of these.
West Virginia finished with 177 yards of offense. That's dominating. Just think, as pathetic as our offense was all night... we outgained them by 53 yards. I haven't read any of their blogs/message boards to see if they are bemoaning the loss due to the injury of Noel Devine, but they are foolish if they think he would have been the deciding factor. Our defensive line abused their OL all night, and that's with Drake Nevis having a relatively quiet performance.
Ken Adams started this game, but hardly played. He's been fairly ineffective anyways, but every time I looked up either Mingo or Aghayere was in there (mostly Mingo). I'm guessing that was designed to counter some of the speed WVU offered at the skill positions.
Additionally Stefoin Francois was benched in the 2nd half for Tahj Jones. Francois continues to struggle in coverage, and I'm interested to see if this is a permanent shift or just a single game decision to combat all those small, shifty players WVU offered. Jones is an undersized LBer, but he can really, really run. Chavis felt confident enough to stick him out on an island out wide with one of the receivers. That's pretty bold. But I will say, Jones must have been doing something right, because the middle passes they burned us on earlier in the game, completely disappeared in the 2nd half. I tried to watch him in coverage a bit and he looked smooth... he can turn his hips and run about as well as a safety, and that's a major compliment. He wasn't as aggressive in run defense, but overall, a solid showing from Jones.
We continued with our Mustang package blitzes to some success. The fumble in the 1st quarter came in our Mustang package. The boxscore credited Nevis with it, but it looked like Montgomery who punched it out. It was a scrum though, so hard to tell.
Speaking of Slammin' Sam, this guy reminds me a ton of Trent Cole for the Philadelphia Eagles. Cole was a LBer in college that the Eagles drafted as DE, added some bulk to and now he's a Pro Bowler. But why I compare them has little to do with that or some "He's the next Julius Peppers!" compliment. It's about effort and the way they play the game. Trent lead the NFL in solo tackles for a DL last season with 48. That's a lot of tackles for a DE. I see the same type of effort from Sam, who always plays the run hard. He's still becoming more disciplined in his approach, but he uses his hands well, is very coachable and the results bare that out. Six tackles and 2 TFL are impressive.
We scored only one TD on Saturday, but I really enjoyed the design. Chris Faulk was brought in as a TE substitute for a goalline formation. After 3 unsuccessful tries (I still think he was in on his 3rd down run), we substitute Blue for Stampley and put Ridley at the FB position to get him closer to the line. This is such a simple and creative way to pick up short yardage. Of course it worked, easy TD. One of the few calls from Gary I appreciated all night.
JJ: Oh man... where to start. Well, he didn't do much to help himself, and the guys around him didn't do much to help him either. TT's drop that lead to a pick in the 1st half was a decent enough (not great) throw that HAS to be caught. Instead, it kills a drive and whatever momentum we were building. His throws were erratic and off target all night.
On one play in the 3rd, we had Ridley flanked out, posted up in a hole about five yards deep on the sideline. It's an easy pitch and catch play. JJ throws it high, Ridley gets smoked.
On another, we had a nice design of a little delay/screen play with Shep. Shep lined up at RB in a Shotgun set, gave a little lookout block to the blitzing linebacker and then popped out. JJ flung the ball at him, Shep bobbled it and lost his balance. No reason to zip that throw... just lob it in there and give Shep a chance to do something in what basically amounts to a handoff.
He woefully under threw TT on a deep ball that nearly resulted in an interception. The corner made a nice break on it, but he should have had no chance. Ed Cunningham said he should have released it earlier... perhaps. But I think he should have just thrown it better. If he puts more air under that ball and leads TT towards the end zone, it's an easy six.
He took another play action pass, executed the fake well, hit his back foot and the throw wasn't there. Instead of throwing it away, he stepped up in the pocket a bit and ended up getting sacked. The protection wasn't superb, but there was enough time for him to get a throw off... he held the ball too long and then didn't get rid of it.
The second pick was absolutely inexcusable and 100% on him. It was a rushed, stupid throw into a guy that was obviously double covered (wasn't even like a disguised coverage). Horrible, horrible decision.
On another play he completely short armed a wide open Shep. 100% on him.
As much as some people want to pretend it to be, this isn't all on JJ. But he sure didn't play well either.
Lee: Got one
puzzling series. After watching it live, I didn't get why he didn't come back in. After watching it a couple of times, I think I may see why JJ is still the starter.
His first play was a simple handoff up the middle. Second play was a zone/read option play where he either a) Completely disregarded the read or b) Was told to hand it off no matter what. I hope it's B for his sake, because there was a good bit of green grass out there for him, and he read the play completely wrong.
On 3rd down, he made a nice, quick checkdown toss to Ridley (with zero touch) that went for a first, but got called back for holding on Shep.
On his second attempt he stood back in the pocket and then bailed entirely too early and dumped it to a check down (TT) across the middle, short of the sticks. He had all day back there as the protection was outstanding. Even Ed Cunningham commented on this. Lee just gave up on the play. Maybe he's just rusty from not being in, but his internal clock was horrible on that play.
Stampley: Didn't really stand out. Whiffed on an option play out wide where he was the lead blocker. Could have turned that play into a 5-7 yard gain, instead it went for 2. Most of our best runs were out of the shotgun when he wasn't in the game... I think that speaks to his necessity as a player.
Ridley: Another outstanding effort. Honestly, we need to appreciate this cat more. If we ran the ball 30 times a game, he could roll up 200 yards with ease. What's impressive about him are his quick feet and vision. If you see his good runs, they are almost never a result of the OL creating a mammoth hole. Instead, he patiently waits and then cuts back and gashes the defense. On one play he was hit in the backfield for what looked to be a total loss, he somehow side stepped out of the tackle and turned it into a 13 yard gain. That's impressive running. And he finishes his runs well as well. There's no reason Ridley shouldn't be the feature item of our offense going forward.
Blue: Chipped in three carries for seven yards and one catch for one yard. Blue runs hard, but he's not impressing me. He's also a major liability when it comes to the blitz pickups, which just makes life harder on our passing offense. I have to believe that Ford simply cannot pass block. Because I don't see any other reason he has yet to take serious snaps.
Shep: Not a great game. Got another penalty. His blocking needs some serious work. He looks a bit tentative. When you see guys like TT and Randle block, they attack their man. Shep just sorta waddles up and plays patty cake with them. I don't think it's because he's lazy; he just hasn't learned how to attack as a blocker right now. His only catch was on a not great throw and went for -6. He ran it twice for 12 yards, most of which came on a nine-yard jet sweep. Why did we turn away from this play?
Toliver: Dropped pass that lead to the pick is inexcusable. We just cannot have that, especially from a Senior leader. Had another nine-yard catch in the 1st. Buried a LB on one block... love seeing that. I like seeing the effort from TT, because WR is one of those positions that sometimes guys that don't get involved early will just tune out in the game. He's still putting for the effort even though he's reaping almost zero personal reward. A true team player.
Randle: Made a nice catch and run in the 3rd. Tried to hit him on a screen (not a bad idea) down near the goal line, but WVU defensed it well, and he just wasn't able to get it in. Ran a great route on a 3rd and 7 and caught the ball up high and fell forward for a 1st. Nice play for him. Everything I said about TT, ditto for Randle.He's got the surest set of hands on the team, no question.
DLO: Not a great first game, but not entirely his fault. Ended up with only one catch for five yards. We split him out wide a few times. JJ was trying hard to get him the ball. Was the target on JJ's 2nd INT. His only catch he made a nice snag on a poor throw, reaching back and plucking it from behind him. Had a couple of other targets, but just never got to him. Hardly played in run situations... so he's pretty much a 5th WR out there.
Clement: Played a ton as a blocking TE, I'm guessing because Mitch got dinged. Didn't stand out.
Bark: 3 needless penalties really hurt. Failed to get lined up by a country mile. Why would a senior be doing things like that? Other than that, his name was hardly called. He got some nice seal blocks on a couple of Ridley's runs. He's done a good job of protecting JJ's blindside this year (I can only remember him being beat once).
JoshD: Solid push on the interior. His real strength comes with his athleticism to get to the next level and pick off LBers and Safeties. You can regularly see him down field doing some blocking, and he always plays to the whistle. He's a much, much better player than last Fall.
PJ: PJ had the toughest task of the night going up against Chris Neild, and I must say, he held his own. Neild still had a nice game, but that guys is a legit NFL prospect and really impressed me. The staff pretty much let PJ handle Neild on his own... I can't even remember him being double teamed at any point. And PJ rose to the occasion. It wasn't a flawless night by any means, but most of the time he did enough to get Neild out of the play, which is really all you need to do. He pancaked Neild once on what was his best block of the night. That was impressive. Otherwise, the pocket rarely collapsed up the middle, so PJ did a good job on him.
Williford: Rotates with T-Bob quite a bit. Saw him pull once near the goal line. Didn't really do anything else to stand out good or bad.
TBob: I'm not entirely sure why TBob plays so much. He had one really nice block where he drove his man to the ground in pass pro. He's not inordinately bad, but he's basically just a high effort player out there without the physical tools (Lyle Hitt-ish). I guess I would just prefer Williford get as many snaps as possible to continue his development.
Hurst: Could have had a holding call on JJ's lone completion to DLO. Fired off and blocked well in the run game. Hurst is a good run blocker that is still making strides in pass pro., but he's a very solid RT.
Nevis: Double teamed most of the night. WVU did the best at corralling him of any team we've played so far, and he still ended up with three tackles, one TFL and a FF. Nevis attracting this much attention only frees up our ends to make plays, particularly one on ones for Montgomery outside, who had a nice game.
Pep: Quietly good game. Made a really nice play on a 46 front we trotted out. DL went: Sam, Brockers, Nevis, Pep, Aghayere. We used it down by the goal line, and it worked pretty well. Pep made a nice play on the drive where they scored their first TD by using his hands to get off a blocker who tried to cut him, crashing down the line and stuffing the RB. Next play he played the option right and made the tackle, but the tackled propelled Gino Smith forward for a 1st... just unfortunate. Finished with seven tackles. Pep is the "weak" spot on our DL, so when he can clean up plays coming to him, he's doing a great job.
Brockers: Is a beast. Absolutely stonewalled a double team that lead to a TFL on one play. He's a DT that gives us a different look than any of our others and man is he going to be a good one. Gets a great push on the interior and is just so unbelievably strong. I expect to see him A LOT vs. Alabama.
Sam: Great game. Still needs to become more disciplined in his run defense, but he plays it hard 100% of the time. Didn't get a sack, but does a great job of collapsing the pocket and forcing the QB to scramble. Against a less mobile QB, his pressure would have generated sacks. Made two very nice plays on run plays in the backfield. Finished with six tackles, two TFLs.
Mingo: Got triple teamed on one play. RESPECT. Affected the pocket all night long. He played A LOT. Seemed like Chavis tried to counter their speed in the backfield with Mingo's speed off the end. Against a team like Alabama, I suspect Adams will get more reps, but in a game when we needed speed on the field, it was Mingo's night. Had two penalties, but that doesn't upset me too much because they were hustle plays. The facemask on Devine was just something that happened (he made a hell of a play to even get into position to make that play). Finished with only two tackles and a PBU. But also had two QBHs. He still struggles to hold the point of attack, but teams won't be able to stretch many plays wide on him, and he dumbfounded their tackles by how quickly he could get up field.
Aghayere: Played a bit in obvious pass situations. Looked okay. He hasn't been the same player since he blew out his knee his HS. Just not the same burst.
Edwards: Played some to give Sam a blow... nothing of note.
KShepp: Typical night from him, nothing flashy. Lead the team in tackles with 11 (surprise, surprise). He's just a consummate, consistent performer in there.
Francois: Got benched after a wretched 1st half. Didn't fare well in coverage... was getting picked on over the middle.
Baker: Solid night. Got beat in coverage, but it was a nice start/stop move from Jock Sanders (who is a 4.3 guy). Baker over ran it, but if he had better technique he could have stopped that completion. I would like to see him attack a little more. Baker against Vandy and MSU was an attacker. He went after the target. This week he seemed to play it a little bit slower. Does an okay job using his hands to get off of blockers. Made a great play to stuff the option in the 4th. Finished with eight tackles and one TFL... he's obviously finding the football.
T. Jones: Played extensively in the 2nd half. Didn't record a tackle, but made an impact as a coverage LBer. Tahj looked better in coverage than LBer I've seen us trot out, and that's precisely why we played. Early on, WVU hurt us with short routes by getting their talented WRs matched up on a LBer. 2nd half that disappeared, largely thanks to Jones. I was particularly impressed with Chavis decision to leave him out wide covering a WR.
Zod: Well, obviously the punt return was awesome. He's got very unique return abilities due to his speed, strength and vision. As a defender, he finished with a measly one tackle and a FG block. Come on PP7, we demand more! Just kidding. Just as Ed Cunningham said at night's end... you know you have a good CB when we don't call his name all night. WVU didn't even think twice about throwing it near him. The one play in his vicinity was a short dump off where he was playing off... Zod crashed hard and destroyed the WR.
Chavis did some unique things with him this game, including lining him up in the middle of the defense and having him bail at the last second. Also using him as a spy, I'm sure. When you have a CB this talented, teams will simply stay away from him completely. Chavis is trying to combat that by moving him around the formations and trying to "hide" him. But you better believe when the opposing offense lines up, mission number one is "Find number 7."
Claiborne: Quiet, just like PP, but made two outstanding plays in coverage. One was a deep route where he stayed in the receivers hip pocket, adjusted to the ball and nearly picked it off. It was a beautiful coverage play. The other was a lightning break on a short out which he dove and nearly picked off. Incredible burst.
Dino: Fell down on WVU's first TD... but it happens. Does the football just have a magnetic attraction to this kid? He's currently on pace for: six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, nine passes defended, six PBU, three INTs, six sacks, and 7.5 TFLs. Not bad for a freshman, eh?
Kidding aside, his break on that INT is the stuff of gods. A mere mortal breaks that pass up. It wasn't a well thrown ball, but it wasn't horrible either. Mathieu just ate it up with a tremendous break on it. The kid is just a natural and he's gonna be a sight to see once he actually gets experience.
BT: Remember when Reggie Nelson earned the nickname "The Eraser?" Taylor is kinda our knock off Eraser. Since game one, tell me who has beaten us deep? His deep coverage keeps that from happening. Beyond that, he absolutely cleans up any runs that break through to the 2nd level. It's really a sight to see. Anytime you see a back breakthrough, here comes Taylor like a freight train to clean it up. He did make a misread on a screen play that ended up going for 19. PP was trying to direct him but too little too late. Otherwise, broken up two passes, one he nearly picked by making a great break on the ball. Finished with three tackles. Playing so far off the line, it's hard for him to get much action, but the work he's doing back there shouldn't go unnoticed.
Hatcher: Played a little, but I think the effort to get more speed on the field rendered him a sub. Eugene played a ton, I'm guessing for that very reason. Recorded one PBU.
Jai: Really nice game. This is probably the best game I've seen during his LSU career. Jai is such a solid tackler, and the play where he came humming down the line and drilled Bailey (I believe) was a thing of beauty. Did a nice job helping to clean up those underneath routes that were hurting us. Finished with five tackles.
Brooks: Finished with four tackles, one QBH and one PBU. Brooks isn't a superstar, but when your Dime back is this talented, you have something working. Had an excellent kick return after WVU's first TD as well. I love him as a return man.
Graff: Save the best for last. Is this guy an ace or is this guy an ace? He made at least one man-up tackle on kick coverage (hard to do) and also nearly downed a punt at the one. This guy is the greatest sixth-year walk-on scholarship earner I've ever encountered. *round of applause*