MORGANTOWN — Perhaps the most important statistic to come out of Saturday’s West Virginia University victory over Texas was the complete dominance the Mountaineers had with ball control.
In most cases, Coach Neal Brown admits, that is not nearly the first statistic he looks at but this week it became an issue for a couple of reasons:
a. Texas has a prolific, explosive offense
b. WVU is thin due to injuries on defense.
So, what better way to keep the Texas offense off the field, and with it the Mountaineers’ defense, than to keep the WVU offense on the field.
Why doesn’t it rank higher on Brown’s list of most important stats?
“It matters when the other team is really good on offense,” he said. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather score fast, obviously. But that’s not where we’re at right now.”
So how has it happened that they have found ways to keep the ball to themselves?
“The reason for time of possession is we haven’t really played with a lot of tempo,” Brown said. “We’ve been methodical. We’ve done more ‘check with me’, especially since the bye week to get us into the best-case plays, so that eats up some clock. Then we’ve had some high number play drives; probably more than most teams.”
Now obviously, part of that comes about because the Mountaineers’ defense rose to the occasion, and did its thing on third down and got the ball away from Texas.
And with it, the offense did its part. The result was that the 31-23 final margin of victory was reflective of the fact the WVU ran 87 plays and Texas just 58. That’s 29 more plays for WVU. That led to the Mountaineers having possession of the ball for 38:26 and Texas just 21:24 — 17 more minutes with the ball in the hands of Jarret Doege and Leddie Brown.
“In the games we’ve won, our third downs have been really high,” Brown said and Texas was no different. “We’ve had some abnormal time differences a couple of times. It’s something you don’t see that often.”
WVU held the Longhorns to just 2 of 10 on third down, 0 of 1 on fourth down, while they were frolicking to 12 first downs in 20 tries, 60%, and 1 of 2 on fourth down — two of those key third-down conversions coming on third and 18 after suffering consecutive sacks.
Doege’s third down performance against Texas was outstanding, hitting 13 for 135 yards and a touchdown.
“He had a clean pocket for the most part,” Brown said, echoing Doege’s postgame praise for the offensive line. “He also had good movement in the pocket and he really threw the ball.
“It’s like with some of us. We have better days within our profession than others and he had a really good day. The ball was jumping off his hand. You got back and look at some of those crossing patterns, like the first touchdown to Sam James. That was on point, and it was a great route by Sam. The ball was tight.
“I think we had some great plays, too. That was something we focused on; making sure they were his best plays,” Brown said. “It’s a little bit different process than you think sometimes. We emphasized using Jarret’s best plays and making them work.”
They were emphasizing more what Jarret could do well as opposed to what Texas did poorly, trying to make a match out of them so they could work.
A lot of that comes out of analytics.
Brown believes that the biggest effect analytics has had on offensive football is on third down decisions and decisions whether to go on fourth down, something that is far more common than it was even five years ago.
“That’s the time I use it the most,” Brown said. “Basically, I’ll make the decision when we start the drive that we will go on some fourth downs. That makes you treat second down like you would first down. Then you play the third down like it’s second down.
“Probably what it does as coaches is it gives confidence in making the decision because the data backs up what your gut is saying anyway.”
Brown said the decisions on going on fourth down comes off charts that they have and that change each week depending upon the opponent. He said any number of things are charted, how many possessions does your opponent possess, what’s their stop rate on third down, what’s the stop rate on fourth down. There’s all these things that go into it.
“It depends on what kind of game it is. When we played Clemson at Troy in 2016, it was the first time we started using it heavily. We were on the minus-20 something and we went for it on fourth and 1. But there’s a bunch that goes into it. I wouldn’t say we follow it 100% but we’re pretty close.”
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