MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Several common themes have hampered West Virginia in both of its October losses this season.
Slow starts hurt the Mountaineers at Texas and Texas Tech and forced them to play the majority of each contest from behind. West Virginia’s defense failed to force a turnover and allowed more than 1,000 yards over the two games while surrendering five touchdowns to the Longhorns and six against the Red Raiders.
Yet perhaps the most pressing issue in both games was the Mountaineers’ inability to win against press coverage, and as a result, opposing defenses seem more likely to employ the defensive tactic down the line against WVU.
“To me, it’s a fundamental issue,” head coach Neal Brown said. “We didn’t do a good job meeting their physicality and we have to own our space. I talk about getting pushed off our lines and we got pushed off our lines. From a player perspective, we have to do a better job of meeting their physicality and using our hands. From a coaches perspective, we have to do a better job of moving the pieces around where they have a chance to get some free releases.”
Teams have opted to play tighter at the line of scrimmage against the Mountaineers, particularly when defending wide receivers Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kaden Prather.
That was the case for much of last week as the Red Raiders’ relied on 6-foot-3 cornerbacks Malik Dunlap and Rayshad Williams to utilize solid statures to their advantage and slow West Virginia’s passing attack.
The plan worked to perfection as the Mountaineers finished with a season low in points (10) and yards (282) to go with a season-high four turnovers. It was a somewhat similar coverage script to the one Texas employed on October 1 when the Longhorns handled the Mountaineers by scoring 28 unanswered points to set the tone in a 38-20 victory.
“You have to win in 1-on-1. The key is to work on it and give them tools to try and help them win in those matchups,” first-year WVU offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “The more and more you work on it and if they can have some success with it, you build confidence. A lot of it being confident and expecting to make the play. If you do that, you’ll go do it.”
The Mountaineers also faced plenty of press coverage in a season-opening loss at Pitt, though Brown didn’t believe it played much of a role in the outcome on a night West Virginia’s offense put forth a solid showing.
“We didn’t do great, but we didn’t do bad,” Brown said of his team’s performance against the Panthers’ press coverage. “Bryce won consistently. We really didn’t have anybody that won versus Texas Tech. They’re longer and they’re both 6-2 plus guys.”
Because of where they play, Ford-Wheaton and Prather are more likely to face press coverage than slot receivers Sam James and Reese Smith.
At 6-3 and 224 pounds, Ford-Wheaton isn’t lacking size, and nor is Prather, who’s listed at 6-4 and weighing 211.
It’s not as if the duo hasn’t enjoyed their fare share of success this season considering Ford-Wheaton and Prather are responsible for 85 of 174 catches, 915 of 1,835 receiving yards and eight of 12 touchdowns that have been hauled in.
However, both Brown and quarterback JT Daniels have discussed at length that WVU’s wide receivers are considered and need to be a strength of the squad, largely due to the experience and proven production from Ford-Wheaton and James along with Prather’s talent and potential.
Displaying different looks seems to be a logical option in the immediate future.
“We have to do a better opportunity of moving them around to give them some chances,” Brown said. “We did that some with the slots and didn’t do it with the outside guys.”
It likely wasn’t coincidental that on the Mountaineers’ only touchdown in Lubbock last week, Ford-Wheaton didn’t face press coverage from Malik Dunlap and was then able to win his 1-on-1 matchup to bring in a 28-yard pass from Daniels.
It was one of the few times WVU pass-catchers had the upper hand in those situations. While Daniels was intercepted three times for the first time in his college career, each of the picks came on balls thrown to wideouts who were single covered.
The first instance, late in the first half, prevented WVU from cutting into a 14-point deficit as Dadrion Taylor-Demerson snagged a Daniels pass intended for Smith. The second one occurred with Tech still leading by 14 on the opening series of the second half when Dunlap forced a turnover on a ball Ford-Wheaton had a chance to catch. Daniels’ final pick came when Williams won in single coverage on Prather.
“He didn’t play as well as he needs to play either,” Brown said of Daniels. “He was off a little bit. The one thing about those interceptions is they were all three 1-on-1s and when you throw into 1-on-1, you have to have the expectation that your guy comes down with it or it’s incomplete. One of them fell down and the other two made plays. We have to be able to either break those up or make those plays.
“The receivers have to better. There were some things we did well. Sam James had a drop, but he played well and played a really good field game. That’s two weeks in a row he’s played really good field games. We have to be more consistent as receivers and our team as a whole.”