Know who had a nice game Friday? That guy. Yeah, he had the pass interference early, but that didn’t discourage him and he was right on the edge between aggressive and penalized the rest of the way, though on the good side for the Mountaineers.
And WVU needed him on a day when Brodrick Jenkins was out, Ickey Banks went out with an injury and Terrell Chestnut and Ricky Rumph had problems and gave up touchdowns and Cecil Level was back at cornerback.
In key spots and in late in the game, Miller was on that wall.
We’ll never know what the story was before the Oklahoma game. Miller insists there was nothing, but Dana Holgorsen’s comment that week suggested maybe there was something. Either way, there was something Friday in Ames, Iowa, and the defense did a serviceable job.
Great? I didn’t say that. Fixed? I wouldn’t say that. Rather, the defense made two plays late and otherwise breathed deep breaths as the secondary mostly held up against a very iffy passing offense. The team is bowl eligible now, which was a long, long time coming, but those young cornerbacks figure to benefit greatly from those bowl prep reps.
How did we get here? Let’s take a look by examining the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Iowa State.
Bad: Eyes in the backfield
After all that, I start off with the secondary!
This is the 10th touchdown pass of 35 yards or more against WVU this season. Ten touchdown passes covering that distance. How does that happen? I mean, even for the nation’s worst pass defense, that seems like a lot. Twelve teams haven’t allowed more than 10 touchdown passes this season.
Well, here’s one way it happens. The playaction fake sucks safety Darwin Cook in — way in — and Chestnut simply can’t make the play when left one-on-one.
Cook’s a playmaker and he likes to come up and break up passes and stop the run, and it served WVU quite well later in the game, but it hurt here.
Good: Running game
So, so good, in fact. I’ll dig into this more, because I wrote about it, but Shawne Alston finally looked like Shawne Alston and Iowa State looked legitimately stumped early in the game.
The Cyclones were either at a loss for words to explain his presence or at a loss for ways to tackle him on a cold day. Or both. And then there was the partnership with Tavon Austin. It seemed, at some point, there was a realization: “This Alston is no easier to deal with than the Tavon fella … and he’s a handful, provided you get a hand on him.”
Dealing with both? That’s a new and different proposition WVU has not presented before.
Watch him motion to the right here and watch the Iowa State defense react and shift. It leaves five defenders in the box and an even five-on-five matchup up front. Buie just has to make a defender miss, or at least make him wait to make his play, for the play to work.
Good: Austin effect II
How does Tavon benefit the passing game? Watch a linebacker and a safety tail Tavon as he motions right to left. The safety abandons Stedman Bailey, who scoots past the initial coverage and finds grass. Too easy.
Yet the threat of Tavon catching a pass behind the line of scrimmage is, it would appear, the lesser of two evils, where the second evil is “Let the Biletnikoff guy go.”
No idea what happened here, but I’ve never seen Geno Smith miss quite as badly. I include this because he more than fixed this later in the game.
Maybe a month or a year from now, Rumph makes this play. On Friday? No chance for the true freshman.
We have to remember teams have had their way running shallow slants in the end zone against WVU and its corners. On the previous play, Iowa State’s Jerome Tiller beat Rumph inside and would have caught a touchdown if the throw from quarterback Sam Richardson was a little better.
On this play, he fakes inside and fades outside. Rumph took the cheese on the inside fake and was screwed into the grass when Tiller went to the outside. That’ll happen.
Good: Batting fourth!
So, is Karl Joseph WVU’s best defensive player? He’s acting like it, what with a career-high 13 tackles Friday and 12 on his own. Somewhere along the line he went from a big hitter to a big tackler. He’s made a handful of noisy tackles the last few games where he just gets into position to make the tackle and then makes the tackle with force.
Before he was just lighting up opponents. Now you can tell he’s harnessed his ferocity and packaged it into sound fundamentals — and he’s still lighting up opponents.
Good: All of this
One reason I have resisted #TeamGoForIt is because I love fake punts. There are so many designs and possibilities and they’re always defibrillators for the crowd or the sideline. It’s just fun, without fail, and this one was no different.
The immediate reaction is great because the crowd shoots to its feet. You see the conclusion coming and you know Kirby Van Der Kamp is going to get there unless someone stops him. Then you see WVU’s Jordan Thompson angling toward the marker and trying to beat Van Der Kamp to the spot.
Of course, Van Der Kamp is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 205 pounds. Thompson is seven inches and 40 pounds smaller. I still admire the effort both made here. It was fun.
Iowa State landed a big momentum haymaker just before this with the fake punt. WVU had gotten off the field and having to go right back on is a brutal shift, especially for a team like WVU that struggles so mightily to get off the field.
So the Cyclones have the crowd and the mojo behind them, but they are forced to punt after this. Richardson, who ran all game, decided not to here. He also decided not to throw it into the flat. He instead opted for a flip pass into a crowd, where Cook is waiting to make the hit and force the punt.
That was a big moment there for either team to capitalize upon.
We haven’t heard much of K.J. Dillon lately. He’s on a bunch of special teams, but doesn’t pop up very often. Until now.
I imagine it’s hard to block for Tavon because you have to know where he is at all times and you can’t give up on a play because even if he’s on the other side of the field, he may be on your side in an instant.
That’s what happens here. Dillon has his guy blocked and, suddenly, Tavon is running up his back and Dillon just gets caught in a bad spot. The sad part is he didn’t need to hold, either. Tavon had it covered if Dillon just did some chicken fighting.
Good: Big throw
WVU needed a first down after Dillon’s holding penalty. Taking away the touchdown was deflating and just seemed, at the moment, like a “Here we go again!” moment and another example of how a team that loses finds ways to lose.
This was, in retrospect, an important play. Watch Geno sit in the pocket and go to his first and second option before flipping to the right and firing off a 37-yard throw to Woods for a nine-yard gain and a first down that set up a field goal. Just good execution when the Mountaineers needed it. Points were critical on that possession.
Bad: I’ll miss this
This gets a Good, naturally, but I wonder how long it’ll be until see this sort of speed, skill and execution again. Just enjoy it. Side Good: Stedman Bailey, slot receiver, with the key block. He knows the linebacker isn’t catching Tavon, so he turns his attention to the safety, who is the bigger threat, and pushes him out of the play.
That’s actually a remarkably alert play. How many players would run into the linebacker right away and consequently let the safety make the play?
Good: The people have spoken
Easily the biggest gripe people had with the late-game guffaws against Oklahoma was Tavon not getting a touch on either of the two-point conversion attempts — and even Dana was critical of that.
Well, WVU finds itself in a spot where it needs a two-point play for a touchdown lead and the offense leans on Tavon, and only moments after he scored on the 75-yard touchdown. There was no timeout. There was no hesitation. The Mountaineers instead looked very organized and shuttled onto the field and got into position.
And what of this formation? WVU is known to go right in short yardage and WVU spent almost all of Friday’s game going right. Here’s a set with Stedman to the right and tight end Cody Clay on the right end of the line, but Ryan Clarke is the blocking back on the left and Alston is the running back on the right. Tavon is behind both.
I thought this might be going left, or at least be coming from the right, and Alston would get the carry with Clarke clearing space. Seemed like that path of least resistance, given WVU’s tendencies. Maybe Tavon motions before the snap or maybe he goes away from the play when the ball is snapped. Either way, he compromises the defense.
Turns out Clarke was the decoy. It’s a toss right behind Alston and not what I’d call inspiring blocking from the others, but Tavon is just too good not to find a narrow opening and squirt through it.
Bad: Josh Francis and … I don’t know
Not long before this, Richardson was running and slid and Francis launched himself late at the grounded Richardson. He somehow missed and avoided a penalty and Richardson, who took a number of big hits in the second half, escaped a big blow.
Francis played with great verve all game. He had good and not-so-good moments, but he was trying to break through and it looked like he did here. Watch him on the first part: He starts outside and twists inside and he sees the play is going back where he was. He runs up the line and stops Richardson.
But then he faces off with Richardson and, I guess, tries to take his face off? You can forgive Will Clarke’s penalty for hands to the face later in the drive. This penalty is something different. It could have been an all-time bonehead moment for a player who, really and truly, has been a bright spot for WVU.
Good: Jorge Wright
He was a monster up front — four tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for a loss — and wouldn’t let himself be blocked on outside zone plays that Iowa State likes to run. I’m also starting to hear some NFL buzz about him. Big body, peaking now, so why not?
Good: Lessons learned
In theory, this should be a Bad. Immediately after Richardson ran through a third-down blitz, Iowa State hurries to the line late in the first half and you can tell WVU is in disarray. The players scurry and try to get set, but, clearly, not everyone is lined up properly. This looks like a zone and Chestnut passes receiver Josh Lenz off to the safety in the defensive backfield.
Cook is shallow, though, and then stops when the short route stops. He can’t rally in time and it’s an easy pitch-and-catch that Richardson nearly makes a mess of in the end zone.
Fast forward to the game’s final possession.
Same play. Same spot of the field. Same end-of-the-half (game) situation. Same action. Different reaction. WVU has time to get set before the snap and Cooks gets deeper. The shorter route fans out again and it is covered again, but Cook doesn’t take the bait.
Lenz gets past Miller and the play is again there, this time with a better, and actually very good, throw by Richardson.
Cook just makes a superior play and darts over to impact Lenz before Lenz can turn away and protect the ball. That sets up this …
How about this for the thrilling conclusion to the five-game losing streak? Could have been the springboard to a six-game slide and a just miserable week getting ready for Kansas, but Cook takes care of that.
He widens out left before the snap, taking care of his assignment with the receiver on that side, but looking at the backfield the whole time. He said he suspected an inside zone play and wanted to angle in and go for Jeff Woody’s chest and, thus, the ball.
Again, not the best coverage guy and he’s had tackling trouble this season because of his injury, but he does seem to find a way to affect the game with a singular play, or a series of them.