Defending the defense
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps the final score was a bit unexpected - after all, no Mountaineer team had ever scored so many points in a season opener, even against lower-division foes - but for the most part West Virginia's 69-34 rout of Marshall Saturday went according to script.
The offense was terrific, the special teams remain a work in progress and the defense was suspect, at best.
It might be a good idea, though, for West Virginia fans to get used to that last part. This is a team that is built to outscore opponents, not to shut them down.
"They played hard. They gave up some plays, but they also got two turnovers,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "As far as how many yards we gave up, I'm not going to worry about that.''
That's good, because the yardage the Mountaineers gave up was substantial. Marshall gained a whopping 545 yards and ran a staggering 101 plays. No WVU opponent has ever run more plays, the only previous one matching that 101 being Penn State in 1966. The yardage allowed was just 93 short of the record 638 by Texas Western at the end of a 2-8 disaster that was the 1950 season.
But in a game West Virginia won by five touchdowns and in which the outcome was never in doubt, are those numbers alarming? Well, first-year defensive coordinator Joe DeForest understandably would like to reduce them, but he also knows that what's more important is the bottom line.
"We've got to make some adjustments, obviously,'' DeForest said. "But we got two turnovers and the kids played really hard. We had some busts at times, but that happens in first games and we had some young kids playing.
"We're not satisfied with the points allowed and we have to play better. But it's a start.''
Again, the fact is this is a different kind of team. No matter how many yards the Mountaineers allow, not many opponents on WVU's schedule will outgain them. And even the ones that might do so will have to accomplish that feat without turning the ball over, which is a difficult proposition.
Yes, Marshall gained 545 yards and scored six times (four touchdowns and two field goals). But the Herd offense was also victimized for two scores - Isaiah Bruce's 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown and Doug Rigg's interception and return to the 3-yard line that made for another easy score. And two of MU's touchdowns came after the score was 69-20.
"We want to get three turnovers every game and we only got two,'' DeForest said. "We got a few three-and-outs and that sort of counts as a turnover.
"But the effort and the attitude were good. The kids did a great job of playing fast.''
Not everything can be rationalized, however. Marshall had seven possessions of seven plays or more and drives of 98, 75, 72, 63, 57 and 52 yards. The Herd converted more than half (9 of 19) its third downs. Of MU's 15 possessions, only three resulted in three-and-outs.
"We couldn't get off the field on third downs. They were better than 50 percent on third-down conversions and that's something that can't happen,'' DeForest said. "We did a great job on first and second downs and then we gave up on third downs. That's what we've got to improve on as a defense.''
If nothing else, the Mountaineers appear to be in a position of having some time to work out the kinks in their defense. West Virginia is off this week and then faces James Madison. The Dukes rolled up 602 yards of total offense in their opener, but that was a 55-7 rout of Saint Francis (Pa.), which, like JMU, is an FCS member but offers roughly half the FCS limit of 63 scholarships.
A week later West Virginia plays at home against Maryland, which gained all of 236 yards and was shut out by William & Mary for 50 minutes before finally scoring to win 7-6.
BRIEFLY: West Virginia's coaches named the following champions for Saturday' game: Shawne Alston (offense), Bruce (defense), Ryan Nehlen (special teams) and Anthony Gutta and Nana Twum Agyire (scout teams).
None of the eight that rank above WVU's 139-point total have occurred since 1920 and none came against opponents that were both considered major at the time. They range from 236 points by Nebraska (119-0 over Haskell Institute in 1910 and 117-0 against Kearney State in 1911) to 140 points by Oklahoma (41-7 over Oklahoma State in 1916 and 99-0 over Central Oklahoma in 1917).
Among the top 20 on the list, only three occurred after 1922, the highest previous being Houston at 135 points (62-45 over Arizona State in 1990 and 73-3 over Louisiana Tech in 1991).
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.