The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Liberty Bowl preview.
WHAT: AutoZone Liberty Bowl
WHEN: Monday, December 29 – 2:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium – Memphis, TN
Three years ago, Texas A&M bolted from the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference. This afternoon, the Aggies face the team that took their spot.
It’s the first-ever meeting between the schools, but familiar bonds connect the programs. Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen served as offensive coordinator at the University of Houston under current TAMU head coach Kevin Sumlin. Aggies offensive coordinator Jake Spavital followed Holgorsen to West Virginia in 2011, serving as quarterbacks coach for two seasons and mentoring Geno Smith. Both teams run variants of the Air Raid offense, spreading the field with heavy receiver sets (typically 10 personnel).
West Virginia began the year 6-2, with losses to then-No. 2 Alabama and then-No. 4 Oklahoma. Three straight November setbacks to TCU, Texas and Kansas State left the Mountaineers reeling and injuries took their toll.
The Aggies gained impressive road wins at then-No. 9 South Carolina and then-No. 3 Auburn, but finished 3-5 in SEC play after a grueling October slate (losses to then-No. 12 Mississippi State, then-No. 3 Ole Miss and then-No. 7 Alabama) and season-ending defeats at the hands of Missouri and LSU.
When West Virginia Has The Ball
The Mountaineers made it official Saturday that quarterback Clint Trickett’s football career is over. The senior suffered his fifth concussion in 14 months during their Week 13 loss to Kansas State, and over the weekend he revealed that he had hidden two of those injuries from team trainers. This season Trickett threw for 3,285 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions while completing 67% of his passes.
Losing Trickett certainly hurts WVU, but contingencies are in place with sophomore Skyler Howard, who led the Mountaineers to a 37-24 win over Iowa State in their regular season finale. The backup “has taken about 90 percent of our reps the entire month anyway,” said Holgorsen Saturday. “I’ve seen considerable improvement here in the last four weeks.”
Howard tossed three touchdowns against the Cyclones as WVU overcame a 21-7 deficit for the win. On his final scoring pass of the day, shown below, he gets good protection against a four-man rush and exhibits patience and awareness, ranging out of the pocket to his left before finding sophomore Daikiel Shorts (#6) in the end zone:
Howard and Shorts exploit several breakdowns by Iowa State’s Cover 3. First, the slot receiver breaks clear of the strong safety’s illegal jersey grasp. Next, Shorts drifts left and underneath teammate Vernon Davis (#81, originally lined up wide left), who crosses into the middle and heads toward the posts, drawing the left cornerback away from his coverage zone. Finally, the strong safety is slow to recover from his earlier gaffe and the free safety never arrives, leaving Shorts with all the space he needs for the game-clinching score.
West Virginia hopes to have wide receiver Kevin White, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, back in peak form. The 6’3’”, 210-pound senior needed just seven games to surpass the 1,000-yard mark this season, but his production fell off mid-year due in part to an ankle injury. Despite a 132-yard performance against Texas in Week 11, the senior compiled just 166 total receiving yards in four other games down the stretch. White finished the regular season with 102 catches for 1,318 yards (7th among FBS receivers) and 9 TDs.
Against Baylor, White made this one-handed touchdown grab after warding off tight coverage, rendering a subsequent defensive pass interference penalty moot:
White declared himself “100 percent” healthy this week, but it remains to be seen if he and Howard can effectively team up for offensive fireworks in their final game as college teammates. Mario Alford, a 5’9” senior (62 receptions, 888 yards, 10 TDs), and 5’7” junior Jordan Thompson (46-514-2) augment the WVU air attack.
Among pass-happy Big 12 schools, only Baylor (597) ran the ball more often this season than the Mountaineers (531), who ranked 44th among 128 FBS schools in rushing yards per game (187.5). West Virginia’s output came almost exclusively from its running backs (Trickett had no runs from scrimmage; Howard carried a dozen times). A pair of sophomores, Rushel Shell (766 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 7 TDs) and Wendell Smallwood (645, 4.6, 2), pace the WVU ground game.
On this touchdown run against Iowa State, Shell wastes no time reaching sprint speed:
Of course, Shell was also the grateful recipient of vacuous running space on the play. With some well-choreographed zone blocking, the offensive line becomes a clockwise rotating wall:
Defensively, the Aggies finished squarely in the middle of the FBS pack against the pass, ranking 64th among 128 schools while allowing 225.5 yards per game. Cornerback Deshazor Everett will likely draw any man coverage assignments on White. The defensive front for A&M is young but talented, especially their edge-rushing defensive ends. Freshman Myles Garrett racked 11.0 sacks, 9 QB hurries and 50 tackles (15 for losses) while on the strong side sophomore Daeshon Hall had 3.5 sacks, 5 hurries and 27 tackles (5 for losses). TAMU’s run defense is another matter entirely as the Aggies ranked 114th nationally, yielding 223.5 yards per game.
When Texas A&M Has The Ball
Like their opponents, the Aggies live primarily through the air. TAMU ranked 12th nationally in per-game passing yardage (306.4) behind the arms of two different quarterbacks. Sophomore Kenny Hill racked up 2,649 yards while completing 67% of his passes and 23 TDs against just 8 interceptions. However, the school then suspended Hill for an unspecified violation of team rules. Though reports confirmed the penalty was to last two games, Hill, who was also suspended by the Aggies last March after running afoul of the law, has yet to play again for Texas A&M and his future in College Station remains unclear.
Sumlin handed the reins to freshman Kyle Allen, who had seen mop-up duty in four blowouts. Allen struggled in his first start (Week 10 vs Louisiana-Monroe), completing only 13 of 28 passes for 106 yards with an interception. In his next outing, with the Aggies entering the game as 28-point underdogs against Auburn, he connected on 19 of 29 throws (65.5%) for 277 yards and 4 TDs with an INT as A&M pulled off the stunning 41-38 upset win.
The Aggies rely on a deep array of receiving weapons, with nine Aggies combining for 35 touchdown catches. Five of those players enter the game with at least 400 receiving yards on their season stat sheets. Leading the pack, Josh Reynolds collected 47 catches for 762 yards and 12 TDs. Also spreading the field: Speedy Noil (44/559/5), Malcome Kennedy (46/529/4), Edward Pope (30/454/4) and Ricky Seals-Jones (48/444/4).
In the Auburn win, Allen and Reynolds hooked up twice for scores. On the first, Reynolds makes a nifty sideline hesitation move to lose his defender:
Next, with the play going to the right opposite the trips formation, Allen shows his quick release and accurate arm, threading the needle as Reynolds’ strong hands secure the ball:
Up front, senior lineman Cedric Ogbuehi has been a four-year stud. After playing guard his first two seasons, he shifted to right tackle as a junior. This season, the 6’5”, 310-pounder switched positions again, moving to left tackle. Ogbuehi, who has excelled in every assignment along the line, blossomed into a premiere blind-side pass protector who shows outstanding footwork with the ability to anchor off his inside leg, and deft awareness of the spacing and leverage advantages his size and arm reach provide.
The ground game is not Texas A&M’s forte, as the team ranked 95th in the nation with only 142.8 yards per contest. Trey Williams (70 rushes, 474 yards, 6 TDs) averages nearly 7 yards per attempt. Tra Carson (99/448/5) and Brandon Williams (86/374/3) help shoulder the load. The idled Hill, with 154 yards, still ranks fourth on the team in rushing. However, don’t expect Allen to scramble much from the QB position.
West Virginia’s pass defense parallels that of the Aggies, ranking 65th nationally while allowing 226.0 yards per game. But the Mountaineers are far more stout against the run than TAMU, ranking 68th (162.6 YPG).
After drawing favorable comparisons to Arizona Cardinals All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald, White figures to go early in the 2015 draft. CBS Sportsline ranks him third among eligible wide receivers and 15th among all eligible draftees. His fellow receiver Alford projects as a late-rounder, as do both of WVU’s offensive guards, Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Other Mountaineers primed for selection include DE Shaquille Riddick, RB Dreamius Smith, and CBs Travis Bell and Ishmael Banks. Trickett had been ranked 22nd among draft-eligible QBs before his retirement.
For Texas A&M, Ogbuehi appears poised to follow in the footsteps of his former O-line teammates Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, both top-ten overall draft picks. His current linemate, guard Jarvis Harrison, projects as a 4th-rounder as does Everett, the press corner. Other Aggies on NFL scouting lists include TE Cameron Clear, OLB Donnie Baggs, and FS Floyd Raven Sr.
An early West Virginia lead could spell trouble for A&M if the Mountaineers use the ground game to eat clock. More likely, this shapes up as a high-scoring fireworks show, even with a pair of relatively inexperienced quarterbacks at the helm, and whoever makes the fewest mistakes prevails.
Texas A&M 38, West Virginia 28
All video and images courtesy FOX Sports and CBS Sports.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.