There will be points. So many points. If you know anything about West Virginia's Big 12 opener against Baylor, it is that. And honestly, you might not need to know more than that. For those who like offense, yards, points and tons upon tons of TV timeouts, this is the game for you. You will enjoy the aesthetics that FX is providing to you.
That said, however, we owe it to ourselves to take a further look at how Baylor and West Virginia plan to rack up silly yardage totals. Now, West Virginia is currently an 11-point favorite, and there are three primary reasons for that:
1. The Mountaineers are at home.
2. WVU quarterback Geno Smith is quite a bit more consistent than Baylor gun-slinger Nick Florence.
3. West Virginia's defense is only a large question mark, not an outright disaster.
But in a game like this, you want to watch not only because of competition, but also because of innovation. It is interesting to look a little bit deeper, not at the offenses' similarities, but at their differences.
It really is easy to lump these two offenses together -- both are incredibly prolific spread offenses led by innovative spread architects: West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen studied at the foot of Air Raid king Hal Mumme and his right-hand man Mike Leach. He has been at (or near) the helm of brutally explosive offenses at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and now West Virginia. Baylor coach Art Briles, on the other hand, is somehow perhaps almost underrated in his ability to mold a ridiculous offense. Briles led Stephenville (TX) High School to four state titles, first with an unstoppable Wishbone attack, then with an even more unstoppable spread offense. He has turned programs around at both Houston and Baylor and, in a short window of time, recruited Kevin Kolb, Case Keenum and Robert Griffin III; he knows quarterbacks, and he knows how to move the ball very, very well. (He also knows how to give up quite a few points along the way.)
But giving each the title of Spread Wizard is almost a bit unfair; it suggests their approach to moving the ball is exactly the same, but it really isn't.
First things first: Baylor really employs about three different offenses.
Offense No. 1: Against UL-Monroe last week, Baylor spent just over half the time in one-back shotgun formations with either two or three receivers lined up wide and, often, a sixth blocker lined up with his hand on the ground.
From this look, the Bears ran the ball about 60 percent of the time and employed quite a bit of downfield passing from play-action. Of the 17 passes quarterback Nick Florence threw out of this look, 11 were thrown at least eight yards downfield and five were thrown at least 24 yards downfield. Consequently, Florence only completed 10 of 17 passes (59 percent) from these formations. This is simultaneously a conservative (lots of rushing by Jarred Salubi and Glasco Martin) and highly aggressive offense, and against ULM, Baylor averaged 6.2 yards per play with this look.
Offense No. 2: On about one-third of their snaps last week, Baylor went with what you might think of as the spread prototype, formations with zero to one backs and four to five wideouts. Sometimes they are lined up from sideline to sideline, and sometimes they are like the screen shot below: wide on one side, bunched together on the other.
Against a ULM defense that was typically rushing either four or five defenders, Baylor passed about 60 percent of the time from these formations. They mixed things up with some option (three of nine planned rushes came out of an option look), but for the most part they did what you assume teams do from this type of formation: make quick, short passes, quickly line up, and do it again. From these formations, Florence completed 13 of 16 passes for 96 yards and an interception. Whereas the average length of a Florence pass (the distance traveled by the actual pass, not the gain of the play itself) was 14.0 yards from the play-action based, bunched formations in Offense No. 1, passes from these formations traveled just about five yards on average. In Offense No. 1, Baylor tries to beat you up the middle, then beat you deep. In Offense No. 2, they stretch you from side to side. Yards per play from this general look: 5.0 yards.
Offense No. 3: (Perhaps this is Offense No. 1A.) In short yardage situations, Baylor had no problem bunching together. On about 10 snaps, the Bears lined up in a two-back formation, with between one and three wideouts. They gained only 11 yards in these snaps, but the formation served its purpose for the most part; from this formation, Baylor converted on either third- or fourth-and-1 on four of four attempts. This is clearly not the primary identity of the Baylor offense, but they have shown a willingness to do what they need to do to move the chains; other versions of the spread keep four to five receivers wide at all times, even in short yardage. Perhaps they are just as successful, but as he showed with his move from Wishbone to spread, Art Briles is more interested in adapting however he needs to in order to move the chains and score points. Unlike a Mike Leach, his approach does not appear born out of "There is a right way and a wrong way to move the football" creed; he just wants to move the football, period.
If Baylor runs three offenses, West Virginia basically runs two. Against their two FBS opponents in 2012, WVU has lined up with either four or five wideouts 53 percent of the time and with either two or three backs in the backfield (and no more than three players wide) 47 percent of the time. With four or five wide, they are throwing the ball 69 percent of the time. With a full backfield, they have undergone an almost perfect, 50-50 run-pass split.
At times, Baylor will attach tight ends to the line for extra blocking responsibility (Offense No. 1). Dana Holgorsen, on the other hand, appears to spend most of his time with exactly five linemen; if he wants to run the ball, he simply brings extra backs into the backfield.
Air It Out. When WVU lines in a four- or five-wide look, you can be guaranteed of two things: 1) Geno Smith is probably not throwing the ball very far, and 2) you are about to get gashed.
Against Marshall and Maryland, WVU averaged 6.9 yards per play in the spread-'em-out look, feeding the ball mostly to star receiver Tavon Austin and running back Andrew Buie. Buie. Buie took four short passes and turned them into four catches for 27 yards; and in 10 handoffs, he has gained a monstrous 75 yards. The running from this formation is basically all-or-nothing. Five of his carries went for three or fewer yards, and four went for at least 10. Big first-string running back Shawne Alston (5'11, 236) does not get much work from this look, and it will be interesting to see if Buie's touches shrink once Dustin Garrison returns to full-speed. Garrison was WVU's leading rusher last year but missed the first two games recovering from a knee injury and only touched the ball twice against Maryland last week.
No matter who is lining up in the backfield, however, Austin is the focal point from this formation. In 67 snaps from this look against Marshall and Maryland, Austin was targeted with 19 passes, 17 of which were completed. Against Marshall, almost all of these passes were within three yards of the line of scrimmage (average length of pass from the line of scrimmage: -0.3 yards; average yards after catch: 6.3). Against Maryland, WVU switched things up a bit, sending Austin downfield with great success. Smith connected with Austin on nine of 11 attempts for 131 yards (average length of pass: 10.8 yards; average yards after catch: 3.3).
By the way, with Mike Leach still sticking mostly to the tried-and-true shotgun at Washington State, Holgorsen's line of thinking has shifted significantly through the years. Despite pass-heavy tendencies in these zero- or one-back formations, WVU lines up in the pistol formation (one with a shorter shotgun snap and a running back lined up behind the quarterback instead of beside him) 84 percent of the time. It fits the philosophy well; the goal when WVU lines up like this is to throw quick-hitter after quick-hitter at the defense. In the passing game, that means a lot of sideline-to-sideline passing; but integrating the pistol means WVU can also quickly hand the ball off to Buie et al. In about 0.6 seconds, any of about six players could have the ball in space. The defense is forced to react incredibly quickly, and when the opposition reacts too quickly, WVU goes deep, if not to Austin, then to Ivan McCartney, Stedman Bailey or Jordan Thompson.
Loaded Backfield. In both shorter-yardage situations and quite a few first-and-10s, WVU will often choose to offer an entirely different look to a confused defense. Almost half (47 percent) of the Mountaineers' snaps come with either two or three players in the backfield with Geno Smith.
With two backs, WVU operates from a pistol about 50 percent of the time, from a shotgun 40 percent of the time and from under center about 10 percent of the time. With three backs, half of the snaps are from under center. No matter what, though, the goal of this look is balance. Here is where Shawne Alston has gotten a vast majority of his carries, usually behind blocking back Ryan Clarke. Buie has yet to thrive with these formations (2.8 yards per carry), but Alston loves it (6.2 yards per carry). That Holgorsen has figured out how to find opportunities for two completely different types of backs is nothing if not commendable. Alston is custom-built for this look, so if the 5'8, 180-pound Garrison does begin to earn more carries, assume they will be taken more from Buie in the one-back set.
When WVU throws from this look, the odds are much greater that the ball is going downfield. Geno Smith will still look to shorter options frequently -- this is still the WVU offense, and 45 percent of the passes still travel five yards or fewer through the air -- but in integrating a bit more play-action, Smith has thrown the ball at least 10 yards downfield about one-third of the time. Bomb threats Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney get a lot more use here (Bailey caught six of nine passes, including a 32-yarder, and McCartney caught a 52-yard bomb against Marshall).
(It should be noted, too, that Bailey had an enormous game as the primary target against James Madison, but we were not able to chart that game because we were not able to get it on our television.)
When you are watching Baylor-WVU today -- and by all means, watch this game -- you will see two different, wonderfully prolific offense racking up yards, rarely putting their quarterback under center, and winging the ball from side to side. But despite their similarities, Art Briles and Dana Holgorsen really do differ in their approach to a moderate degree.
Watch this game because points and yards are fun, but also watch it because of the philosophical differences. Record it, and watch it again later, too. These two coaches are masters of their craft.
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