The first game of the season usually offers numerous opportunities for film study, whether to analyze changes in offensive and defensive game plans and call, or to evaluate the play of newcomers and those moving up the depth chart.
That is certainly the case with West Virginia's 38-31 loss to Pitt in the 2022 Backyard Brawl, which opened the Mountaineers' season for only the ninth time in their history. As in any contest of this nature, with its back and forth momentum changes, there were both positives and negatives to run through the projector.
The defining line between success and failure of a play is often a small one, and there were a number of those in this contest. In this example, WVU sets up a nice swing pass to running back Tony Mathis, and catches the Panthers in a blitz. The Mountaineers have two blockers out in front to handle the two remaining Pitt defenders, but tight end Mike O'Laughlin (87) trips over a Pitt lineman, allowing his man to get upfield and spill Mathis for a one-yard loss.
If O'Laughlin isn't caught up, this is a big gain -- and maybe goes to the house.
Pitt went all-out to establish the run, often using six and sometimes seven offensive linemen. That didn't serve to either wear down WVU or establish the dominance that Panther head coach Pat Narduzzi wants, but as Pitt ended up getting the win, he escaped any criticism.
In this clip we get a look at one such formation, with seven linemen, two receivers, one running back and the quarterback. Pitt also used a tight end, frequently with six linemen, and only attempted 24 passes.
This formation came early in the game, and WVU countered with Lanell Carr, it's "heavy" bandit against power and short-yardage situations. It later used four defensive linemen on a number of plays. On this snap, Pitt broke tendency and threw the ball, but didn't do that as much as it might have.
The Mountaineers held the Panthers to 76 rushing yards overall, and got solid penetration against the heavy formation while also recording five sacks. WVU was game planned and ready for the looks.
C.J. Donaldson announced his presence to WVU fans with this run, and also had two other long jaunts to account for the bulk of his 125 yards on the ground. On this play, the Mountaineers didn't employ the trap or cross-formation kickout blocks that often accompany their inside runs. Instead, the line formed a good wall, washed most of the Pitt defensive front to the right, and Donaldson did the rest, splitting a pair of arm tackles on the way to a 44-yard gain. O'Laughlin sealed his side, allowing Donaldson to hit top speed and break the arm tackle attempts.
Twice more in the game, Donaldson had big inside runs, with each showing a slightly different blocking scheme. One one, O'Laughlin went in motion, then doubled back in front of Donaldson to seal an edge defender, and later it was a conventional backside block from the tight end that helped spring him.
It's encouraging to see these different techniques resulting in gains, and even though opponents won't be caught unaware by Donaldson again, WVU has different schemes it can call upon to attack varying defensive fronts.
Because this happened in the second quarter, it's gotten scant attention, but it was a key play in the game, and illustrates the need to secure the ball at all times. Kaden Prather is a dynamic player in space, but here he's far too loose with the ball after a catch, and it's knocked out of his hands with a one-handed swipe. This can be a big teaching moment for him, and for all WVU receivers. Put the ball away and secure it at three points in traffic.
Pitt went on to score a TD on its ensuing drive, clearly reversing momentum that WVU held after getting a turnover of its own while leading 7-3.
Mountaineer fans would be celebrating this play as a game-winner in many circumstances. Pitt punter Sam Vander Haar was a bit too casual as he rolled to his right before trying to get the kick away, but the Panthers are also protecting with just three linemen and two personal protectors in the interior formation. Donaldson comes across the protection and selects a perfect aiming point in front of Vander Harr, and easily rejects it. He also did a good job in getting to that spot where the ball was kicked be while keeping distance from Vander Haar to prevent a potential roughing call had he not blocked it.
Credit also goes to transfer defensive lineman Anthony Del Negro (47) who blows past his man and pounds one of the Pitt protectors, giving Donaldson an optimal path to the punter.
There's no reason this protection scheme can't work, but the punter has to be aware of the rush, and the blockers can't be beaten quickly.
West Virginia's safeties had some issues with pursuit and coverage angles, and both showed up on a handful of Panther completions. Was that caused by the excitement of the game, or due to the fact that some of WVU's defensive secondary were playing in their first high-level D1 contest?
WVU's secondary was also beaten deep twice, although it escaped unscathed due to a drop and and overthrow on those plays. The Mountaineers also had trouble with quick slants behind its linebackers, who bit on run fakes a couple of times, allowing clear throwing lanes to receivers in front of the safeties. Again, bad angles helped Pitt turn those into big gains.
On this snap, both of WVU's linebackers and its spear get sucked in by the run fake, and a bad angle and a flailing tackle attempt results in the ball going all the way to the doorstep of the Mountaineer end zone.
More of those bad angles, as well as three missed tackles, an an ineffective late push, are evident on Pitt's final offensive touchdown of the game. Tackling overall wasn't bad for WVU, especially on the defensive front, but in open space it came into play at some critical situations.
It didn't appear as if WVU's defenders were outclassed in terms of physical ability, just that they may have gotten caught up in the speed of the game. That's something to watch as the Mountaineers take on Kansas this Saturday and Virginia Tech on Sept. 22.