The Mountaineers tried their best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but rallied twice in the final minutes to win in spite of themselves, beating the BYU Cougars 35-32.
Skyler Howard has been a regular in the positives section through 2 games, so it’s only natural that he finds himself here after his latest performance. He’s had crazier stat lines, but I don’t know if he’s ever looked sharper than he did Saturday, completing 31 of 40 passes for 332 yards and a touchdown. There were a few questionable decisions (the interception throw, the throw across his body rolling right that landed in the middle of about 5 BYU guys, and agreeing to run that awful play on 4th and 1), but he wouldn’t be our Skyler without 1 or 2 of those, and the most important thing was that the ball was again coming out accurately, on time, and to the right people. The deep balls were money again, as well, and the strike he threw to Shelton on 3rd and 6 to extend that 99 yard TD drive may have been his best throw as a Mountaineer.
Speaking of Shelton Gibson, the junior speedster continued to make a nuisance of himself, catching 4 balls for 144 yards and consistently blowing the lid off of BYU’s defense. As we talked about last week, this is exactly what we need from Shelton, and I think his work in the 3rd quarter especially (2 catches for 83) helped open up some of the space that Justin Crawford was able to exploit on the way to our 35-19 lead. Through 3 games Shelton has hauled in 16 balls for 354 yards (22.1 ypc, 118 ypg) and 2 touchdowns. That 22.1 ypc is just a shade under the 23.9 that he averaged last year, but his current catch rate projects him at 69 catches for 1534 yards (would’ve been good for 3rd nationally last year) and 9 touchdowns over 13 games. Not too shabby.
Justin Crawford remade his case for an increased workload, carrying 9 times for 86 yards, catching 3 balls for 36 yards, and generally looking much more effective than backfield mate Rushel Shell. We’ll discuss Shell a bit more in a minute, but Crawford just has a burst and a wiggle that Rushel can’t match, and you have to wonder how much longer we’ll stick with him when it seems increasingly apparent that we’re more dangerous with Crawford in the game.
3rd down offense was again solid, with the Mountaineers converting 6 of their 12 attempts. This has a consistent strength for us all year, and our 51.5% conversion rate through September is good for 18th in the country.
Our red zone offense finally got going, as well. It had been a complete disaster through 2 games, with our 25% TD rate good for 2nd worst in the country, but that all changed on Saturday with the Mountaineers punching it into the end zone on 4 out of their 5 red zone trips. As predicted, we finally opened up the playbook a bit and got the tight ends/fullbacks into the act, especially on that nifty little play action flat-curl combo that got us the 5th touchdown. We also manned up and ground out some tough yards for our first 2 scores. All in all a night and day difference from the previous 2 games.
Defensively, there wasn’t a lot for us to get excited about, but I did feel like there were 2 bright spots worth noting. First, Kyzir White is quickly establishing himself as our best defensive player. The youngest White brother was all over the field Saturday, recording a team-high 9 tackles and showing that he’s a more-than-capable successor KJ Dillon. Second, we managed to flip the script on the previously opportunistic Cougars by forcing 4 turnovers. I don’t want to spend too much time on this since I feel like we fell ass-backwards into at least 2 of them, but there’s no denying that our guys came up huge when we needed them most.
Our front 6 again left A LOT to be desired. You want to hear how bad our front 6 has been? Through 3 games, our starting rotation (within which I’m including Nwachukwu, Brown, Howard, Shuler, Benton, Long, Walters, Preston, and Arndt) has produced 97 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 2 hurries. That’s just over 10 tackles a piece, or about 3.6 tackles per guy per game. That’s it. 5 of our top 7 tacklers (and 6 of our top 10) are defensive backs. What this usually means is that the defensive line is getting blown off the ball and into the linebackers’ laps, which means that they can’t run and make plays. Doesn’t that sound like exactly what happened Saturday? We still had the usual trouble getting after the passer and covering receivers, but BYU absolutely gashed us on the ground, as well, with both Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams going over 100 yards. Overall, the Cougars ran 40 times for 280 yards (7.0 ypc), and it really did look that easy for them, which is worrying considering that they weren’t exactly 1970’s Oklahoma (or even 2016 Oklahoma) coming into the game. Thank God for turnovers.
Offensive line got the tough yards, but got out-physicaled (that’s a word, right?) in the running game. We continued our good pass protection, and were able to pick up tough yards in the red zone in a few occasions, but I never really felt like we fully established our running game.
Of course, that could also be because it seemed like Russell Shell regressed a bit with regards to running decisively. He’d been better about it through 2 games this year, and as a counter-point to my point, he actually showed some nice close-quarters maneuvering for the first touchdown, but with BYU committed to stacking us up there simply wasn’t much easy running room. This caused Shell to revert back to the stuttering approaches to the line that rendered him so much less effective than Wendell last year, and it was starkly contrasted this time by Justin Crawford, who hit creases like a bolt of lightning and was able to pick up 51 more yards than Shell despite having 2 less carries.
The 4th and 1 play call was absolutely abysmal, and I would be saying that even if we’d converted. I like Skyler as a runner, especially this year now that he’s picking his spots better, but that doesn’t mean that I think he’s our best runner, or that he needs to be the guy who carries the ball on 4th and 1. I support a QB sneak in that situation, but if we’re actually going to snap it and run a play, we have 3 good running backs and 2 big fullbacks; give the ball the one of them.
Another play call that I had mixed feelings about was the touch-pass jet sweep that we ran a couple of times Saturday. I like that it’s in the game plan, not only because it’s an easy way to get our skill guys on the edge but also because it makes the defense respect the jet motion, but I don’t understand why we’d run it with Daikiel. We have an abundance of athletic talent at the skill positions, and despite all of his quality, Daikiel Shorts has never been a game breaker, so while I’d like to see us keep running it, I’d rather we hand it to Shelton or Jovon.
The last problem we’ll touch on was the general lack of focus and execution that we showed in closing out the game. Excluding the end of that 99-yard TD drive and kneeling out the clock, our three 4th quarter possessions included two 3-and-outs and that awful fumble inside the BYU 10. BYU’s 4th quarter possessions included an 8 play, 67-yard touchdown drive, a 9 play, 79-yard touchdown drive, an interception when Hill missed an open receiver, and a 6 play, 66-yard drive that I was not at all optimistic about until we deflected that pass for the final interception. That was good enough on Saturday thanks to those timely turnovers, but we have to be better than that going forward or we’re going to lose some games that we probably shouldn’t.
BYU was exactly the kind of test we needed heading into conference play. They were extremely physical on both sides of the ball, they took advantage of our known weaknesses, and they exposed new ones for us to work on. Conversely, we moved the ball up and down the field and scored points on a defense that previously hadn’t allowed anyone to do so, we fixed our red zone scoring issues, and proved to ourselves that we can win tough games. Couldn’t ask for more from a game we were able to win.
All in all it was another mixed-bag performance from the Mountaineers, but it was also another W, and that’s the important thing. 3-0, and on to conference play.