Switching gears on defense
MORGANTOWN - The whole idea of West Virginia restructuring its defense, from hiring a new set of coaches to implementing a new scheme, was born with essentially one thing in mind - defending the high-tempo spread offenses it will face in the Big 12.
Yes, the Mountaineers' new 3-4 scheme puts an emphasis on versatility. Its design allows for a seamless transition into a 4-3 front better suited to stop running attacks like the ones it will face against teams such as Kansas State and Iowa State. It has the flexibility to drop a safety-sized linebacker like Terence Garvin into coverage and instantly become a quasi-nickel package.
The bottom line is that as the offenses it faces become more multiple, the defense has to steer that way, too.
But now here - plopped between the evolving offenses of Marshall in the opener and Maryland next week, and as that initial run through a Big 12 schedule approaches - comes James Madison. The Dukes are simply old fashioned.
"What it reminds me of is what the Big East is or was doing. It's the old Northeastern football,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said of JMU. "It's what old Big East teams were. It's what West Virginia was before I got here, what Pitt was a couple years ago, what Syracuse and Connecticut did last year.''
That's what No. 9 West Virginia (1-0) will face Saturday against JMU (2-0) at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
It's not as if the Dukes are running the single wing or emulating the 1960s Packers, mind you. It's not old fashioned in that sense.
But with more and more offenses rapidly morphing into what could be described as modern-day football, those that still emphasize the running game, have a mobile quarterback and consider play-action to be trickery - think Don Nehlen football here in the 1980s - are diminishing.
That was true even in the Big East during West Virginia's final years there, and it's true in certain areas of the country on the FCS level that James Madison calls home.
But not so much at JMU and in that team's league, the Colonial Athletic Association. JMU actually refers to its base offense as a spread, but it is far from, say, the WVU version of the spread.
"What the Big East used to be is what the Colonial Athletic Association is now,'' Holgorsen said. "They'll get the ball off to tight ends, they'll try to establish the run and they'll control the clock. It's all about playing with effort. I think JMU defended around 62 plays per game last year. That's what West Virginia was defending before I got here.
"The landscape of college football is changing slightly, but I don't think it's gotten to them yet.''
So, is West Virginia's new defense equipped to handle that type of offense? Well, yes. Again, one of the objectives of changing the defense was to be more adaptable because not every team the Mountaineers will face is Texas Tech. Many, including Texas and Oklahoma, still employ plenty of the designs of traditional offenses, but with variations that allow them to spread the field.
"Each and every week your opponent creates different problems, and you have to solve them,'' defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "I think it's a huge challenge this week because you don't see it often, and if you have to prepare for it in three days it can become problematic.
"But every week there's going to be an element of an offense that you saw in previous weeks. So it's going to help us down the line because we'll see elements of James Madison as we go on.''
So what will West Virginia face on Saturday? Well, the Dukes' offensive line is big by FCS standards, although not so much on the FBS level. JMU will use a tight end most of the time and will give quarterback Justin Thorpe the freedom to make plays with his feet and hand it to a versatile back in 5-foot-9, 205-pound Dae'Quan Scott, assuming he recovers from an ankle injury. The Dukes have run the ball 85 times and thrown it 57 in two games, a ratio that's roughly the opposite of what WVU did last season.
"They have some guys up front that look the part. If you put too many people in the box, they will try to challenge you one-on-one,'' Holgorsen said. "They've got good, big O-linemen with some experience and they've got a tight end that they'll play with about 80 percent of the time. They want to control the ball, they want to run the ball and obviously they'll try to get us on some play-action stuff down the field.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.