ISU’s defense aims to slow West Virginia’s dynamic Will Grier

Sep 22, 2018; Morgantown, WV, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier (7) celebrates with fans after beating the Kansas State Wildcats at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Standing six-feet two-inches tall and weighing in at 223 carefully-crafted pounds, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier very much looks the part of a prototypical big-play, Big 12 quarterback.

His flaws, few. His flair, obvious. “A guy who’s gonna be up for the Heisman and should be,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock summed up.

Grier will represent the second top-four Heisman Trophy candidate the Cyclones (2-3, 1-2) have faced in the first half of the season when he rolls into Jack Trice Stadium with the rest of the sixth-ranked Mountaineers (5-0, 3-0) for Saturday’s 6 p.m. prime time showdown on FS1.

And while his overall numbers mirror those of fellow star play caller Kyler Murray of Oklahoma (both boast 21 touchdown passes), his ability to consistently attack with his arm downfield sets him apart. 

In other words: Murray’s the league’s top big-play producer, churning up 13.1 yards per pass attempt, but Grier’s the guy who readily turns tough third downs into first downs, helping West Virginia lead the league in that category with an astonishing 56.9 percent conversion rate.

So how to stop him? First, stop trying. He — like Murray — will put up numbers. The key resides in limiting Grier’s impact, not negating it.

“He’s a guy that can throw in all aspects of the field,” Cyclones coach Matt Campbell said. “He can throw the deep ball as well as anybody in college football. What he does over the middle and certainly in the intermediate passing game is really consistent. They’re playing to that advantage. I think to sit there and say that you’re going to stop him is a naïve comment. We have to continue to be multiple in what we do and try to do a great job and win situational football. Those become a big factor against a quarterback like this.”

That means keeping Grier slightly off balance, creating a constant sense of unease. It doesn’t have to be pronounced, but it does have to be ongoing. Once a rhythm’s firmly established, it can quickly become too late to slow the Mountaineers’ balanced and powerful attack.

“I just think he probably is probably just another coach out there on the field,” said Heacock, whose unit ranks third in the Big 12 in yards allowed per play, at 5.17. “I would think — and again, I don’t know — but he certainly knows where he’s going with the ball, when he’s going there with it, how it’s getting there, knowns the coverages, all of those things. He’s not a guy that you spend a bunch of time trying to confuse. You’ve got to do your job and play well because he can make you pay.”

An experienced offensive line allows Grier time to expose even the tiniest of flaws in a zone, or a minuscule slip in man coverage.

Both Campbell and Heacock are convinced it’s those five guys up front who make West Virginia’s offense go — and the numbers bear that out. Grier leads the league in total offense with 358.4 yards per game, but the rushing attack is tied for third and yards gained per play, at 5.72.

 “They’re a really good all-around offense,” ISU safety Braxton Lewis said.

 It’s countered by a mighty fine defense that leads the Big 12 in rushing touchdowns allowed (4) and has given up just one pass of 50-plus yards to dent its armor.

Grier will test that mettle with a cadre of multi-talented receivers well-suited to his skill set. While seniors David Sills and Gary Jennings Jr. reel in touchdown catches (six each this season), junior Marcus Simms stretches the field by averaging almost 19 yards per reception.

Grier, then, has quite the Heisman canvas to work with. The Cyclones — who seek to imporve to 5-2 against ranked opponents in the past two seasons — simply must prevent him from turning MidAmerican Energy Field into the scene for his latest masterpiece.

And that challenge should prove exciting, rather than inviting anxiety.

“He’s mobile. He can move a little bit. Makes some great throws,” senior linebacker Willie Harvey said. “Doesn’t make many mistakes, so it will be a challenge. I mean, he’s a Heisman candidate for a reason, but he’s not Peyton Manning or anybody like that. He’s containable and we’ll get the job done, I feel like, on Saturday.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.