Shootout Central, or does defense count?
MORGANTOWN - This is the week when West Virginia begins finding the answer to a question that has been around for several years now, or since the Big 12 became Shootout Central.
Does defense even matter? And if it does, how much?
"Well, that side of the ball is important and I don't care who you're playing,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Every team poses different challenges.''
True, but in the Big 12 the challenge, at least as a general rule, is to score more points than the other team. And while that might sound simplistic - and it is - the difference in the Big 12 is that seldom is 10 or 20 or sometimes even 30 points enough.
Case in point: Last season, Texas led the Big 12 in total defense and ranked No. 11 in the country. The Longhorns finished the season 8-5 and finished sixth in the 10-team league and with a losing conference record.
Oklahoma State, meanwhile, was 107th out of 120 teams in total defense. The Cowboys finished 12-1 and won the Big 12.
Yes, OSU made up somewhat for those defensive deficiencies by leading the nation in turnover margin, giving its high-powered offense - second in the country in passing and scoring and third in total offense - more opportunities to score.
But in a way, perhaps that only reinforces the argument that offense is the thing and defense is secondary.
On Saturday, No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) faces No. 25 Baylor (3-0) at Mountaineer Field. The noon game is the first ever for WVU in Big 12 play.
And it pits a West Virginia offense that is third in the country in passing, 10th in scoring and 14th in total offense against a Baylor defense that is No. 113 in passing defense and total defense. On the flip side, a Baylor offense that is fifth in passing and scoring and sixth in total offense against a WVU defense that is No. 74 in total defense and No. 103 against the pass.
Holgorsen. though, can't afford to go into this game - or any, for that matter - with the idea that his offense has to outscore the other team's in a shootout. The bottom line is he has to maintain the attitude that his defense is gearing to stop the opponent every time, even if he knows that's not possible.
"There are so many good offenses in the Big 12. Baylor's got a great offense,'' Holgorsen said. "If you think we're just going to shut them down, you're nuts. But what you've got to do is you've got to line up and keep playing, no matter what happened the previous possession, no matter what happened the previous play.
"You've got to have a short memory and line up and execute your job on the next play or the next series. If you give up a couple of plays or a couple of touchdowns, you've got to be able to get out there and focus to get a key stop. That's the mentality you have to have, especially when you play a team like Baylor.''
In a way, both West Virginia and Baylor have adopted the same philosophy on defense, one that permeates the Big 12. Yes, the attempt is to stop opposing offenses, but knowing that's not going to happen, there has to be something else. And that's the turnover factor that Oklahoma State used to its advantage last season.
West Virginia and Baylor are both among the top 15 teams in the country in turnover margin this season. Five Big 12 teams in all rank among the top 15.
Shoot, Holgorsen even went so far to hire his defensive coordinator based on that philosophy. Joe DeForest was the safeties coach at Oklahoma State last season.
"That mentality exists in the Big 12,'' Holgorsen said. "I saw [Texas coach] Mack Brown talk about it. That's all they're working on is turnover ratio. One reason Joe DeForest is our defensive coordinator is because they led the country in forcing turnovers last year. They gave up yards, they forced turnovers.
"We're going to give up yards, but we're going to force turnovers. Baylor's given up a bunch of yards, but they've forced turnovers.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.