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West Virginia vs. Texas: A surprising lesson on slowing down the Mountaineers

Slowing down the West Virginia offense comes down to an age-old question: What did Maryland do? (And is four the semi-magic number?)

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

It has turned into West Virginia Week for me at SB Nation. On Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday I wrote pieces in which WVU was the major player, and, well, of course I did. That offense is ridiculous. At least, it was last week. That said, it is worth noting that the Mountaineers' offense doesn't always look as good as it did on Saturday against Baylor.

West Virginia travels to Austin on Saturday to take on the undefeated, 11th-ranked Texas Longhorns. To figure out how Texas or anybody else can stop the 2012 WVU offense, you have to start by asking one simple, and rather unexpected, question:

What did Maryland do?

Dan Rubenstein picks West Virginia over Texas

Against Marshall, James Madison and Baylor, West Virginia has averaged 56.7 points per game, 677.0 yards per game and 8.6 yards per play. Against Maryland on September 22, however, the Mountaineers scored just 31 points, gained 363 yards, and averaged 5.3 yards per play. Granted, WVU still won by 10 points (the Maryland offense is, after all, still the Maryland offense), but the Terps made life much more difficult for head coach Dana Holgorsen and quarterback Geno Smith than their counterparts from Morgantown, Harrisonburg, or Waco. So what happened?

1. West Virginia didn't use the entire playbook.

It bears mentioning from the start. As our own Mike Nixon said at Football Study Hall last week, Tavon Austin didn't spend as much time near the line of scrimmages, taking fly sweeps and shovel passes for long gains.

[O]ne only need watch last season’s Orange Bowl to see how devastating the Mountaineer’s fly-sweep package can be. One week away from West Virginia’s Big 12 opener, Holgorsen chose to abandon the package and go with a pretty vanilla game plan. With West Virginia in control for the majority of the game, there was never a need for Holgorsen to dip into his bag of tricks with a 3-0 Baylor squad coming to town this upcoming weekend.

West Virginia seemed content with attempting to work in more straight-forward, downfield passing to Austin, and while it paid off (Austin caught 13 of 17 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns), it is still worth noting that one of the base concepts of WVU's 2012 playbook wasn't in use. Against Baylor, the playbook was all the way open again, and we saw what happened.

2. Maryland rushed four and reacted.

Well, most of what the Terrapins did well came out of a four-man rush, anyway. Maryland tried a lot of things, and a lot of them didn't work. When Maryland attempted the "rush three and drop eight into coverage approach" (something that has confounded Mike Leach's offense quite a bit this year), Geno Smith was merciless: 7-for-9 for 123 yards (13.7 per pass attempt). Against the three-man rush, he primarily looked for Austin and was rewarded.

The idea behind dropping so many defenders into coverage is simple: it floods the passing lanes with more defenders than receivers and typically forces a quarterback to either run around for quite a while (and risk an eventual sack) in the hopes that a receiver will briefly come open downfield or settle for an underneath option and a short gain. But Austin was just too talented and, more importantly, too fast. Extra defenders couldn't stop Austin; all the lack of a pass rush did was allow Smith to wait for Austin to open deep. Against three pass rushers, the Smith-to-Austin connection was 6-for-6 for 116 yards. Austin had gains of zero, 15, 16, 17, 24 and 44 yards, and only the zero- and 44-yarder were the results of short passes. The other four were all downfield routes. It was the same story last week. On about half of WVU's pass attempts, the Bears rushed three and dropped eight into coverage. Smith sat back and completed an almost criminal 25 of 28 passes for 410 yards.

Related: "I can make every throw." Geno Smith on his Heisman run and why WVU is better this year.

Note to the defensive coordinators of future West Virginia opponents: this doesn't work. Texas might be more capable of getting away with this approach, simply because their defensive backs are better than Maryland's or Baylor's, and thanks to ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor a three-man Texas pass rush might eventually get pressure on Smith. But I doubt we see this approach much from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Diaz has taken an aggressive, if rather unsuccessful, approach to defending the Air Raid in the past, and after watching film of the Baylor game it is difficult to think Diaz will conclude that a three-man rush is the way to go.

When the Maryland defense attempted to form a balloon of defenders around the WVU receiving corps, Austin popped it. What happened when Maryland blitzed? The Terps were able to tackle well enough to prevent big plays, but Smith handled the pressure with relative ease. When Maryland rushed five defenders at Smith, he completed 73 percent of his passes for 7.6 yards per attempt and was sacked just once. (Against a five-man Baylor rush, on the other hand, Smith was 8-for-8 for 119 yards.) On the four occasions in which Maryland sent more than five defenders, he completed three of four passes for 32 yards. Facing a blitz, Smith is simply going to go into robot mode, identify where he's throwing the ball before the snap, and fire off a quick pass for a short gain, one that can become a long gain with a missed tackle. One almost thinks it is good to blitz, not because Smith will end up on his back, but because Smith will only have time to beat you for six to 10 yards at a time instead of destroying you deep.

When the Terps attempted to throw wrenches into WVU's plans, either by bringing more or fewer pass rushers than normal, Smith typically reacted quite well. His instincts and accuracy are second-to-none right now. But Maryland saw quite a bit of success in simply rushing four and reacting to what WVU was attempting to do. Against a four-man rush, Smith's quick passes were efficient but only marginally successful. Smith completed 11 of 17 passes for 60 yards and was sacked once, averaging just 2.7 yards per pass attempt. Baylor was not quite as successful in this approach (because Baylor wasn't successful at anything) -- Smith completed 14 of 17 passes for 151 yards -- but they were still more capable of slowing WVU down doing this than anything else.

3. Maryland tackled really, really well.

The whole idea behind the spread offense was to get the ball to playmakers in spaces that allow them to make plays. When you've got playmakers like Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, your job really isn't that difficult. In a given game, about half of WVU's passes are going to be thrown to within five yards of the line of scrimmage, with the hopes that somebody like Austin will turn an easy pitch-and-catch into an enormous gain. If you miss tackles, you are done. (This is a problem for a Texas defense that missed all sorts of tackles against Oklahoma State.) But for the most part, Maryland did not. Of the 17 short passes (five yards or shorter) Smith threw against Maryland, only three resulted in missed tackles, and only five resulted in a WVU player gaining more than seven yards after the catch (against Baylor, there were nine such gains). Thanks to one play by Austin (he turned a five-yard completion into a 44-yard completion), WVU still averaged 8.1 yards after catch in these short passes, but the success rate wasn't as bad as it could have been, and the average falls to 5.7 yards without that one play.

4. Maryland stopped the run.

Of course, so did Baylor, more or less -- running back Andrew Buie carried 25 times for just 82 yards (3.3 per carry). Stopping the run isn't a direct pathway to success because a short run on first down will just result in a Geno Smith completion on second-and-9, but that doesn't change the fact that WVU wants to run the ball and spends a good portion of the game in a run-friendly formation. And if the run IS working, then you have virtually no chance of stopping the Mountaineers.

There is no magic formula for stopping the Air Raid. With a quarterback this good, and with a receiving corps this dangerous, all you can hope to do is tackle well, live to see another day, and force just enough bad plays that your own offense can outscore the Mountaineers. Texas was befuddled by Oklahoma State last week; youngsters in the back seven froze up occasionally under constant pressure, and missed tackles allowed for huge Cowboy gains. J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State's backup quarterback thrust into the starting role after an injury to Wes Lunt, averaged 10.0 yards per pass attempt. J.W. Walsh is not Geno Smith, and Oklahoma State's Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart are not Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. This is bad news for Texas. It is difficult to see the Longhorns holding WVU to 35 or fewer points, especially if Smith is as accurate downfield as he was last Saturday.

Better news for Texas: the Longhorns did, in fact, beat Oklahoma State last week. They made enough stops and gained enough yards to win in Stillwater despite allowing 576 yards and 35 points. The 'Horns offense has developed enough in 2012 that it should be able to move the ball quite a bit against a West Virginia defense that currently ranks worse in Def. S&P+ (65th) than Oklahoma State's (49th). WVU is 87th in Passing S&P+, and Texas quarterback David Ash completed 30 of 37 passes last week.

At home, Texas will still have an excellent chance of coming away with a victory. But the offense will have to keep up. Against a full WVU playbook and an absurdly accurate Geno Smith, it is almost a guarantee that any team this side of Tuscaloosa will have to score at least 40 points to beat West Virginia. But the WVU defense is iffy enough that this might just happen.

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