It’s an aspect with which the Mountaineers struggled at times last season. Tackles were missed, and there wasn’t another defender close. Bad angles were taken, and foes racked up additional yardage and, often, scores. Case and point: Sadale Foster’s 53-yard scoring run with 35 seconds left in the first half in Texas Tech’s 49-14 pasting of WVU last season. The play had every conceivable defensive breakdown. Linebackers took poor angles and ran past the back. Same with the secondary, which failed to play the proper angle to rundown Foster, with five – five! – WVU defenders immediately following him into the end zone.
In between, WVU had Foster surrounded with six defenders against three Tech blockers at one point. No matter. A safety sucked up and took himself out of the play. A corner engaged himself with a blocker for no particular reason. Foster got the edge, and that, combined with the angle issues, was that. Touchdown, Tech, and a 35-7 lead at the break.
It was, arguably, the most memorably bad defensive play in a year filled with them. The YouTube.com tag from one West Virginia newspaper blog about the play simply reads “This Shouldn’t Happen.” The only other play that comes close for sheer shock and dark humor is Baylor’s 67-yard scoring pass to Lanear Sampson as time expired in the first half to tie the score at 35-35. The Mountaineers, ahead by seven with mere seconds remaining, needed to stop just one play to take what many considered a crucial one-score advantage to the break in a game in which neither team could stop the other and WVU was to receive the second half kick.
“That can’t happen,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said after the game. But it did. Lest we dwell solely on negatives, let’s examine what’s being done to remedy such issues. New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has implemented a multi-pronged approach to shoring up deficiencies. First, WVU will take a more direct upfield approach to pressuring the pocket. No longer will players sidestep before moving forward. It’s all vertical progression. Second, the line will “shade,” or play gaps as opposed to man up on opposing offensive linemen. That should allow for better ability to split opposing players and not simply occupy blocks.
Both ideas are based on angles. Angles to the ball, to the backfield, to opposing players like the quarterback. Then there are the tackling angles. The Mountaineers routinely took themselves out of proper tackling position with poor approach angles. Players didn’t take the correct lines to get to the ball. That has to be remedied, and it appears it has.
“I like how we run to the ball, with the emphasis on the pursuit drill,” safety Darwin Cook said. “I feel like everybody got better in their angles, which includes myself. That was one part of my game last year that I needed to improve on – taking proper angles. I feel the whole defense got much better.”
A corollary to correct approach angles is the ability to operate and tackle in space. West Virginia struggled with that last season. Part of negating an offensive advantage in space – which is what spread teams thrive upon – is a numeric advantage either in number of players around the ball or in player size itself. WVU is recruiting bigger bodies because it’s one way to shrink the field, much like lengthy basketball players do the court. And like a solid center that merely changes shot angles as opposed to blocking them, the players don’t have to be able to totally dominate a foe, but merely to be able to change the way that space is used.
“That goes back to those tall, lengthy bodies,” Patterson said. “Because when they drop, they don’t have to be great cover guys. Just their presence (affects offenses). Tanner Antle, he was 6-4 and played that
buck position (at Tulsa), but he could also play that willie linebacker spot in the 3-3 stack. We were playing Boise and he had that tall presence, and he would drop into the boundary and sit, and (Boise State quarterback) Kellen Moore would never throw the comeback route because of the length of him and his ability to jump. Once you get those body types, and you can move with some suddenness, and they have the length, they don’t have to be great cover guys. It’s hard to throw off of them.”
It’s exactly what West Virginia has been building, getting multiple 6-3 linebackers – and one of 6-6 – in its last two classes, along with defensive linemen 6-4, 6-5 or taller. It’s become a space game. The offense wants to create it, the defense wants to eliminate it. Eliminate and change how space is used via angles – approach angles, pass rush angles, angles to certain players and locations on the field – and get numbers to the ball. Accomplish those two tasks, and tackle, and the statistical improvement will come.
“The guys have heard me say it before: ‘70 percent of all big plays in Division I college football come because of misalignment or busted assignment,’” Patterson said. “Spread offenses are all about match-ups. Get the ball in this guy’s hand, in space, versus a guy that I’m a better athlete than. If he misses, it’s a 10-yard gain. That’s the way the game has changed more than anything. Those are nothing but long handoffs. All the bubble screens, the tunnel screens, checking the backs out of the backfield and getting the ball quickly, to me, all those are long handoffs. So you get people playing with tremendous effort and get more players around the ball.”