Defense did just enough in win over Longhorns
AUSTIN, Texas - West Virginia's defense will still be maligned and perhaps mocked across the nation after Saturday night's win over Texas. After all, the numbers don't lie.
In two Big 12 games, West Virginia has surrendered an average of 54 points. That the offense averages 59 might render that statistic meaningless, but it is still out there, front and center to be ridiculed.
But look closer at the defensive performance in that rousing 48-45 win over the Longhorns and there is encouragement to be had. Several times against Texas the defense came up with big, big stops. And with an offense like this one, that's all that is needed.
"The defense came up with some big stops in key situations,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward. "I thought they showed a lot of improvement.''
And after giving up 63 points and 700 yards a week before against Baylor, a lot of improvement was needed.
Texas still cut through that defense at times. The bottom line is that Texas had the ball 12 times and either scored (seven times) or had a chance to score (one missed field goal) on all but four possessions.
But every one of those four possessions was huge for the defense. It stopped the Longhorns twice on downs, forced a fumble (all in West Virginia territory) and forced a punt. Consider that on 12 WVU possessions, the Texas defense, far more touted, stopped only three drives, never got the Mountaineers on downs and forced only one punt (plus two fumbles).
"When the offense struggled, we made plays,'' said WVU safety Darwin Cook. "And when we struggled, the offense made plays.''
On the two occasions West Virginia's defense forced Texas off the field on downs, both were because of big defensive plays, not offensive ineptitude. Karl Joseph blitzed and tipped a David Ash pass on third down and Ash was pressured and hit on a failed fourth-down throw in the first quarter at the WVU 44.
Then in the fourth quarter, Josh Francis sack Ash to put the Longhorns in a bad situation and much-maligned cornerback Pat Miller broke up a fourth-down pass at about the 20-yard line with 8:09 to play and WVU leading 41-38.
"Yeah, there were a lot of people criticizing me personally,'' Miller said of the week leading up to the game. "But you just have to feed off of that.''
Granted, the defense still had its soft spots. Texas abused the Mountaineers perhaps four or five times by running double post patterns in the middle of the field and slipping a back or someone else lined up inside into the wide-open space vacated on the short outside. By the end of the night, Ash had actually thrown for one more yard than the Heisman Trophy favorite Geno Smith (269-268, although Smith made up for it with four touchdowns).
But the vaunted Texas running game that so concerned the Mountaineers didn't even fare as well as WVU's run game, gaining just 135 yards (Andrew Buie had 207 himself). Texas gained 404 yards, but in this league 404 yards should come with a "just'' before it. Going into the weekend, a 404-yard average in total offense would have ranked eighth in the 10-team Big 12 and is 91 yards less that Texas averaged.
And once again that's all West Virginia and its offense needed.
It was just silly how successful West Virginia was on fourth down, going 5-for-5 after having not converted a single one of four tries in the first four games.
The Mountaineers came into the game leading the nation in third-down conversions but made just three of 12. But it didn't matter because the fourth downs pushed that to an eight-of-12 success rate.
And every one of them led to a touchdown. Two came on the drive that gave WVU a 14-7 lead, including a 2-yard run by Buie from an I-formation with Smith under center - Don Nehlen football. The second came when Texas sacked Smith, but the play was wiped out because the UT coaches had called timeout on the sideline. Tavon Austin turned a short pass into a 40-yard TD on the do-over.
Smith later completed an 11-yard pass to Austin on the drive that made it 21-7, then in the second half converted two more fourths on the drive that made it 41-38 and gave WVU the lead for good. They came on another 11-yard pass to Austin on fourth-and-6 and a quick-to-the-line Smith sneak that went for 12 yards on fourth-and-short.
BRIEFLY: Tyler Bitancurt now probably holds the all-time record for kicks blocked (his own) at West Virginia. He had his seventh field goal blocked against Texas, then punted for the first time in his career and had it partially blocked.
Hard to fault him, though, after he made two field goals that proved to be the difference in a three-point win. Highly-touted Anthony Fera of Texas can't say the same.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.