Big Picture: How West Virginia silenced Baylor’s vaunted offense

Tony Gibson, the first-year West Virginia defensive coordinator, had an interesting dilemma midway through the second quarter facing the dynamic Baylor offense. The Bears had arrived in Morgantown averaging an FBS-leading 623 yards per game and 67 points in their past two meetings with the Mountaineers. Baylor had just retaken the lead, 20-14, on a 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Antwan Goodley.

Gibson’s game plan for Baylor was to attack the Bears offense more than anyone else had tried to all season, something most teams are scared to do because of Art Briles’ speed at wideout and because they cringe at the thought of QB Bryce Petty throwing over their heads. The Mountaineers wanted to pressure the Bears receivers at the line of scrimmage, making sure their DBs got their hands on them to disrupt the timing of the offense while also disguising what they were doing — showing man coverage and jumping into zone. But more than that, the plan was to blitz the heck out of Petty.

Gibson told FOX Sports Sunday morning that WVU blitzed on 46 of 79 offensive snaps. He said that was probably more than it had blitzed in all other games combined this season. Thirty-seven of those blitzes were man pressures. "We sent six men 13 times in the game," Gibson said. WVU also sent seven rushers and played Cover 0 behind it 13 times.

"Our kids had that look in their eyes," Gibson told FOX Sports. "They were like, ‘Coach, let’s go (Cover) 0! Let’s go (Cover) 0!’" Gibson called it on three of their last four plays, and the Mountaineers either made negative yardage plays or Petty threw incomplete passes under duress, locking up the 41-27 victory.

In addition to Gibson’s players being more confident in a much more aggressive game plan, this is also a more seasoned defense, especially at linebacker. WVU ranks a modest No. 61 in fewest yards allowed per play at 5.34, but that’s up from No. 92 last season and No. 106 in 2012. Gibson’s defense is also holding opponents to less than 33 percent on third downs (No. 27 in the country) — up from No. 91 and No. 104 the two previous seasons.

"I’m so happy for Dana, our whole staff and our kids and for this whole team," Gibson said of WVU’s big win Saturday.

Gibson, a West Virginia native and an old Rich Rodriguez assistant, is the fourth DC Dana Holgorsen has had in his four seasons. A long-time DB coach also well-known for his recruiting prowess, Gibson spent a lot of time under former WVU DC Jeff Casteel and has incorporated many of the same principles they used in Morgantown years ago. It’s a lot of the same 3-3 look that Casteel uses now at Arizona, only Gibson prefers more single-high safety because it enables him to disguise blitzes, he says. In the Casteel scheme, it’s more two-high safeties and they will play more Quarters coverage.

The much-improved WVU D, coupled with the re-emergence of an explosive Mountaineers offense, has helped turn Holgorsen from a guy on the hot seat to hot commodity again. The 5-2 Mountaineers’ two losses, both by 10 points, came against top-five opponents in Alabama and Oklahoma. Still, they’re in the thick of the Big 12 race with No. 10 TCU and No. 11 K-State having to come to Morgantown in November, while a road trip to Stillwater this week could be tricky.

Of course, Holgorsen’s team, which cracked the polls Sunday at No. 25, knows better than to get too hung up on this big upset win over Baylor. After all, last season, it was the Mountaineers who stunned then-No. 11 Oklahoma State when they visited and left town with a loss.

MY FOX FOUR BALLOT

The Week 8 FOX Four is posted. Below is my individual ballot and explanations.

1. Mississippi State:  Beating a very good Auburn team by 15 points after already having played in two previous top 10 match-ups is very impressive. By November, that win at LSU on a Saturday night will start to look very good again.

2. Florida State: I was close to pushing the ‘Noles back above MSU but held off because they have struggled with some good — and not that good — teams this season, but what Jameis Winston did in the second half against a tough and extremely well-coached ND squad was impressive.

3. Ole Miss: I really like their defense — no one’s scored more than 20 on ‘em, and they’ve held three SEC opponents to one offensive TD or less. The home win over ‘Bama is as good as any other W this season.

4. Oregon: A double-digit win over Michigan State is a good chip, and it’s noteworthy that the Ducks’ one loss, a close one to Arizona, came while their best OT, Jake Fisher, was injured. He’s back now and they’re rolling again. They also did go to UCLA and hammered a talented Bruins team, leading at one point in the fourth quarter 42-10.

5. Notre Dame: The Irish came within a controversial flag of the biggest win of the season. Even still, ND went toe-to-toe with the ‘Noles in Tallahassee and controlled both lines of scrimmage. The bad news: ND’s win over Stanford doesn’t look as good with the Cardinal losing at ASU. The not-so-bad news: Their game at ASU in three weeks will carry more schedule weight with the Committee.

6. Alabama: Nick Saban’s team responded to those touting the Tide’s decline with a ferocious performance, hammering a free-falling A&M team. The Tide have a close loss at Ole Miss (not bad) but did follow that up with a dud of a showing against an Arkansas team that hasn’t won an SEC game in years.

7. Auburn: I’m not quite as high on the Tigers’ case right now as many others seem to be. They won close on the road against a good K-State team, but they also lost by 15 at Mississippi State in a game where they were down 21-0 in a hurry. We’ll get a much better read on the Tigers in November when they have road trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.

8. TCU: Strong response after the gut-wrenching loss at Baylor by the Horned Frogs, crushing No. 15 Oklahoma State, a team that gave FSU all it could handle. They also have a win against OU and a 23-point win over a Minnesota team that’s now 6-1. They can boost their stake a bunch in early November with a back-to-back at WVU and then home for K-State.

9. Michigan State: The Spartans have one ranked win (over Nebraska), and while they lost at Oregon, it was a game they were leading in the third quarter. Their game with a one-loss Ohio State in a few weeks could help their cause some.

10. K-State: The Cats jumped into my top 10 after winning at Oklahoma, which was the first quality win all season for K-State. The home loss to Auburn was close. Bill Snyder’s team will have a good shot to impress the committee since the Cats have a rugged road schedule remaining: at TCU, at WVU and at Baylor. Plus, they face an Oklahoma State team that was in the top 15 at one point.

WEEK 8 WINNERS & LOSERS

DUKE DOING IT AGAIN

Hats off to David Cutcliffe and his Duke staff. The Blue Devils beat Virginia to move to 6-1 and become bowl-eligible for the third consecutive season, a pretty remarkable feat when you consider when they started this run, Duke had been to bowls only twice in the previous 41 years. Cutcliffe, long known for his offensive prowess, is thriving this season thanks to a defense that is No. 5 in the nation in scoring D at 15.1 ppg.

What’s even more impressive is the Blue Devils are doing it without their best defender in Mike LB Kelby Brown, an All-ACC player who was lost for the season in August due to a torn ACL. Will LB David Helton has shifted to Mike, where he might be better suited, while Duke has added in some more athletic players at Will. Former Ohio State DB Jeremy Cash, a physical player who plays the hybrid LB/DB, has blossomed. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is No. 2 on the team in tackles with 63 and leads with five TFLs and three forced fumbles. 

With a modest group of opponents remaining who are a combined three games under .500, don’t be shocked if Duke wins out the rest of the regular season and goes 11-1.

A SEMINOLES FREAK TO WATCH

Even though he didn’t have much impact on FSU’s win over Notre Dame Saturday night, remember the name of ‘Noles freshman DE Lorenzo Featherston. The 6-7, 230-pounder from North Carolina wasn’t a huge name in recruiting, but he’s wowed his teammates. He already has five TFLs this season and 17 tackles. FSU DL Mario Edwards calls him "freaky fast and freaky long."

Edwards says even in practice teammates all know Featherston loves to try to beat linemen with an inside move and none of them can stop it. "When he takes two steps, it’s like someone else taking six steps," says Edwards. "Once he puts on some weight, he’ll be like another (Jadeveon) Clowney."

SMALL-COLLEGE STAR

Gaudiest stat line for a college football player: Takari Johnson from NAIA Concordia of Michigan. He had only 10 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one forced fumble and one sack in a 33-3 loss to Siena Heights. On the season, Johnson has 27 TFLs, nine sacks, six forced fumbles and is averaging 18.1 tackles per game — five tackles more than any other NAIA player. 

AN ELEPHANT IN THE HEISMAN RACE

The Heisman race feels like it has a lot fewer options than it did in 2013. My top five at this point:

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: 19 TDs, 0 INTs. Also has run for five more TDs and caught another touchdown pass.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

2. Dak Prescott, QB, Miss. State: Has accounted for 22 TDs and thrown four INTs while eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark in four of MSU’s six games.

3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin: On pace to go over 2,000 yards while averaging almost 8 yards a carry. 

4. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia: White has had over 100 receiving yards in every game. The Mountaineers have played three top-five teams this season, and White’s worst game stats-wise against them was his eight-catch, 132-yard, two-TD game this week against Baylor.

5. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana: Even when IU is forced to play a true freshman QB and everyone knows Coleman is all the Hoosiers have, he still runs for 132 yards and almost a 9-yard average against a tough Michigan State D that had been allowing only 2.8 yards per carry entering the game.

The elephant in the Heisman room this year for voters is Jameis Winston. I came close to including him this week in my top five. He was superb Saturday against a good ND team on a huge stage, going 15 of 16 in the second half in the ‘Noles’ come-from-behind win. The downside against his on-field case at this point is FSU has played only two teams that were ranked in the top 25, and in one of those games (Clemson) Winston was suspended and didn’t do his team any favors by not being there. But it’s a long season and Winston more than delivered Saturday night, and he’ll have more chances to come through and pile up numbers. And that’s where it’ll get interesting.

As I explained earlier last week in our podcast, I believe Winston is going to force Heisman voters to wrestle with some awkward issues. As a Heisman voter, I’ve felt trying to factor character into the voting process is a dicey thing. The reason: We just don’t know these guys. Winston’s off-field track record of, at best, knucklehead behavior has certainly given folks plenty of reason not to like him. But how well do we really know all the other candidates?

Even if we’ve spent time with the players for features either written or for TV, that’s just a snapshot of what they’re like. A few years ago, we fawned over Manti Te’o’s story, but we later learned his story was hardly what we thought it was. For some voters, I’m sure that helped his cause, and it shouldn’t have, but that’s part of human nature. In truth, there’s too much gray area with this stuff as it relates to the Heisman. So I’ve maintained we should just focus on what they do on the field. Even the Heisman brass has tried to reduce that gray area by taking any references to "character" out of the mission statement.

I’m sure many Heisman voters will still factor in character into their thought process, and that is their right. My hunch is even if Winston plays as well in the second half of the season as he did in the second half against ND and he leads the ‘Noles to an unbeaten regular season, his persona has already alienated too many Heisman voters to get him a shot at a second Heisman.

DIVISION III DYNASTY?

Congrats to D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, who this weekend won his 100th game. His record as a head coach is jaw-dropping and this is an ideal spot to remind folks about it. He’s 100-6. This is the guy’s eighth season as a head coach. He’s won five national titles, lost in the title game and had a 7-3 season. This year, the Warhawks are 6-0 and have won by an average score of 48-5. 

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

In the wake of Stanford’s loss at ASU, the Cardinal have fallen out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in over four years. Given what a mess Stanford football was before Jim Harbaugh arrived, it’s worth acknowledging what an amazing run that was.

Also worth noting: The game against Arizona State was Stanford’s third this season against a ranked opponent, and the Cardinal have lost all three and scored a combined 34 points in those three games.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

Three of the QBs on the Notre Dame 2012 BCS title game roster — Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix and Gunner Kiel — are all tied for seventh in the nation in TD passes this season with 19. Hendrix is now at Miami-Ohio while Kiel is at Cincinnati. Together they’ve combined for 57 TD passes and 19 INTs.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

Courtesy of colleague Stewart Mandel: The nation’s top four leading rushers — Gordon, Coleman, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Minnesota’s David Cobb — play in the Big Ten, and the No. 5 rusher, Thomas Rawls of Central Michigan, started his career at Michigan.