Pressure's on Mountaineer corners
MORGANTOWN - With only one possible exception, no one is under a bigger microscope as West Virginia comes off its bye week than the Mountaineers' cornerbacks.
Yes, it's hard to argue that it isn't Geno Smith in that position. Once the runaway leader in the race for the Heisman Trophy, Smith and WVU's offense have nosedived in the last two games. Righting that ship is paramount.
But on the other side of the ball is the nation's worst pass defense. Unlike the offense, it isn't merely off its game. Its game hasn't been there all season, which is why of the nation's 120 FBS schools the Mountaineers rank dead last in passing yards allowed.
While the pass defense problems are certainly a group effort, it is that small group of cornerbacks who are front and center.
Both they and cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts know it.
"I can't speak [how they're handling it], but I told them that each one of them signed up to play cornerback,'' Roberts said. "And they also signed up to play in the Big 12. And so that's the life. No one's going to stop throwing the ball.''
Next up is TCU (5-3, 2-3), which visits No. 23 West Virginia (5-2, 2-2) for a 3 p.m. game Saturday at Mountaineer Field. That the Horned Frogs are dealing with the loss of their starting quarterback, Casey Pachall, and making do with redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin seems rather inconsequential. West Virginia has defended star throwing quarterbacks, backups, freshmen and those know more for their running than their passing this season, and all have had success against the Mountaineers.
To compound matters, West Virginia isn't very deep and not completely healthy at the position. Only two players, Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, are veterans, and Jenkins missed WVU's 55-14 loss to Kansas State with a knee injury. His status for the TCU game is questionable, at best.
Behind those two is a pair of true freshmen, Nana Kyeremeh and Ricky Rumph, both of whom are still learning both the defense and the college game itself. On this week's depth chart those two are listed 1-2 at one of the corner spots with Jenkins on the mend.
It's a tall task manning the spots at the back end of a defense in the Big 12, but it's even harder doing it with freshmen learning their way and veterans struggling with a lack of success. The glare of the spotlight after so many failures doesn't help, either, but there's only one way to get that spotlight turned off.
"They have to make plays. When you make plays it becomes a different story,'' Roberts said. "I told them to remember the questions they were getting after the Texas game. But you're only as good as your last play. That's what people remember.''
Indeed, after the Texas game - a 48-45 win on Oct. 6 - the feeling toward the secondary was quite different than it is now. No, the Mountaineers didn't play lights out in Austin. Quarterback David Ash completed 22 of 29 passes for 269 yards and the Longhorns were the first of three consecutive teams to embarrass WVU's defense with wide-open receivers on wheel routes. The Mountaineers gave up only 269 yards passing, but that was in great part because of Texas' preference to run the ball. WVU at that time ranked 117th in the country in pass defense.
But there were also signs of improvement, especially late in the game. West Virginia fought off two potential go-ahead Texas drives in the fourth quarter, once with a fourth-down pass breakup by Miller. It gave hope that more of the same was in store.
It wasn't. Or at least that hasn't been the case so far. In the two games since, Texas Tech's Seth Doege and Kansas State's Collin Klein have combined to complete 51 of 63 passes for 822 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception, that on a ball that hit a Tech receiver in the hands and he couldn't hold it. Doege and Klein both set personal records for passing yards.
In an effort to mitigate the damage, Roberts and the rest of the defensive staff have attempted to simplify things like coverages and allow the corners and everyone else to play faster and without so much thought.
"Just play fast,'' Roberts said. "We've tried to simplify the book so that they can just play fast and have fun doing it.''
Throw in an off-week emphasis on tackling, communication and even catching the ball and the hope is that it is a different-looking defense that shows up Saturday against TCU. There have been signs of life in brief spurts, like at Texas, but they have to be far more consistent.
"We've shown the ability to go in and make some plays against a good offense,'' Roberts said. "We've got to do the same this week.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.