Putting it all on the line
MORGANTOWN - Does West Virginia's defense have a prayer of being able to hold the Texas offense in check?
For that matter, can the Mountaineers hold anyone to reasonable point totals over the course of the last eight weeks of the season?
Face it, aside from a potential injury to one of the stars of its high-powered offense, that is going to be by far the most significant factor in determining West Virginia's success this season.
A huge clue to the answer should come Saturday night in Austin, Texas, when the No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0) face No. 11 Texas (4-0) in a 7 p.m. game televised by Fox.
The West Virginia offense will move the ball and score points. That's almost a given, no matter the quality of the defense. Yes, the Mountaineers will face their stiffest challenge yet in a Texas defense overstocked with five-star recruits, but the Longhorns aren't likely to pose more problems than did LSU a year ago. WVU gained 533 yards and 28 first downs against the Tigers.
Ditto the rest of the teams in the Big 12, which for all its gaudy offensive numbers in recent years is also the league where defenses surrender all those gaudy offensive numbers.
But at some point the defenses have to win, even if it's just a handful of possessions. That means winning some one-on-one battles - anywhere.
"Everyone sees the one-on-one battles on the back end because that's where touchdowns are scored or not scored,'' West Virginia defensive line coach Erik Slaughter said. "But nobody notices the one-on-one battles up front. You win some of those and it makes things a lot easier for the defense as a whole.''
In West Virginia's most recent game, the Mountaineers won very few of those back-end matchups. It's why Baylor was able to pile up 700 yards of total offense and score 63 points. Yes, it all became a moot point when WVU's offense one-upped the Bears with 807 yards and 70 points, but that's not going to happen every week.
The way Slaughter figures it, though, if his guys up front can win a few more battles, well, the job of the back-end players will be made a little easier. Getting pressure on the quarterback and stuffing the run game to make opponents more one-dimensional would make a huge difference.
"Think about a nose tackle against a guard or center, or an end against an offensive tackle,'' Slaughter aid. "Those are one-on-one matchups that are just as important as a cornerback on a wide receiver. We've got to win those matchups, too.''
The Mountaineers actually did win a few of those against Baylor. The Bears came into the game averaging 207 yards rushing and 5.3 yards per carry. Against West Virginia they had 119 yards and averaged 2.6 yards.
Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, who had been sacked only three times in three games, was dropped three more by the Mountaineer pass rush. West Virginia also hemmed him in otherwise, giving him just 14 yards on four rushes (he finished in negative yardage after the sacks) after he'd averaged 58 yards and nearly 10 yards per carry on his non-sack rushes this season.
Now, whether or not that bodes well as WVU prepares to face a team like Texas - which runs the ball on just under 60 percent of its plays - remains to be seen. The two offenses are simply apples and oranges.
"The challenge Texas gives you is multiple shifts,'' defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "Every third play you're going to get tight ends in motion and they try to confuse you with all the movement. And then they settle down and just try to run the ball down your throat.
"We have to just let them move, read our keys and go from there. But it's a big challenge.''
The Longhorns are averaging 43.5 rushes per game and gaining 228 yards. But quarterback David Ash is also second in the country in pass efficiency (behind WVU's Geno Smith) and has thrown for 10 touchdowns and just one interception.
So stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback are both perhaps more important this week than last. Neither has much to do with the secondary, which is where many of WVU's defensive failings rest, so Saturday night's game should answer a lot of questions about how well-equipped the Mountaineers are to handle the multiple offenses it will see the rest of the season.
"There are a lot of good things we did and a lot of good things that happened [against Baylor],'' Slaughter said, referring to his defensive front. "But the bottom line is that we gave up 63 points. It's almost like a moral victory that we won despite that. And we're not interested in moral victories.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.