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Was Mountaineer defense really better last week?

STILLWATER, Okla. - In making a not-so-subtle change in game-day responsibilities among his defensive coaches, Dana Holgorsen seems to have successfully hit upon at least one small way to improve that side of the football.

But how much of a difference it really makes might never be known. After all, there are tons of moving parts here.

Maybe sending defensive coordinator Joe DeForest up to the press box and bringing co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson down to the field was a significant move. Or maybe it's being overblown. Tune in this afternoon when West Virginia visits Oklahoma State and there might be more evidence.

Or there might not.

West Virginia's defense seems to have played better much of the time during last week's 39-38 overtime loss to TCU. It allowed fewer yards and fewer points than it had in any game in more than a month and matched the fewest points (31) it had allowed to an FBS team in regulation all season.

(We will pause here to allow you to absorb that last statement. In allowing 31 points, WVU matched its low yield for the season over four quarters. So 31 is now where the defensive bar is set. Thirty-one.)

Anyway, in evaluating what made the defense better than it had been for virtually the entire season, there are a few possibilities to be considered. There's also the rather legitimate question of whether the defense actually was better.

We'll address that last thought first. As we mentioned earlier this week, WVU's defense had six three-and-outs, forced three turnovers and allowed only two touchdowns in the game's first 581/2 minutes. Great. But it also did so against a TCU offense that refused - until backed into corners in regard to down-and-distance or score - to throw the football, which is the WVU defense's weak link. So is an awful pass defense that isn't passed on really playing better? You be the judge.

As far as potential reasons the defense might have been better, well, the DeForest-Patterson switch is only one to consider.

There were also three new starters in safety Cecil Level, cornerback Ishmael Banks and linebacker Jared Barber.

There was the week off after embarrassing 49- and 55-point yields in losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State that came after 63- and 45-point performances by Baylor and Texas.

There was a reschooling in the areas of fundamentals.

There was also a simplification of certain parts of the defense.

The best guess here is that the redistribution of coaching responsibilities played into whatever improvement might have been made. DeForest hasn't spent a lot of time in the press box during his coaching career, but if the defense was better because of the calls and changes he was making from upstairs, keep him there.

He admits he likes the calmness up there, which is one of the reasons Holgorsen sent him there.

"I thought it would help Joe to be in a sterile environment,'' Holgorsen said this week. "There are a lot of bullets flying on the sidelines and there's a lot of stuff going on. It's quiet and he can see better.''

Apparently having Patterson on the sideline helped, too. He and line coach Erik Slaughter were jumping around like kids, encouraging players and celebrating with them.

There's still one huge issue, though, that remains to be addressed with the defense, and it's ultimately what got the Mountaineers beat last week. Despite the fundamentals, the personnel changes, the coaching switches and even the caliber of the opponent, West Virginia is still proving incapable of stopping teams from throwing the football successfully even in situations of desperation.

West Virginia has been beaten by a lot of passes this season. Long passes. They've come early, late and at all times in between. But that 94-yarder TCU threw to tie the game was the third time this season WVU's defense was beaten for a long touchdown with the clock against the opponent. Baylor threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to tie that game at 35 at halftime. Texas Tech got a 53-yard run by DeSale Foster through a secondary that let him run by untouched and nail WVU's coffin shut at 35-7 in the final seconds of the first half.

"It was a lack of communication,'' DeForest said of the TCU back-breaker. "It was simple as that.''

OK, granted, had the communication been better it wouldn't have happened. Maybe the safety picks up the wide receiver that the corner let go and it's a 20-yard gain instead of a touchdown. Maybe he even breaks up the pass. All of that is true.

But given a season's worth of evidence that your defense is at times wholly incapable of stopping teams no matter the ridiculousness of their circumstance, might it not be time to experiment with something new? I don't know, maybe some sort of prevent defense.

I know the old saying that the only thing a prevent defense prevents is winning. Teams soften up and allow offenses to carve them up in short stretches rather than one long one and the result is still the same. I know that. I also know that with more than two minutes to play, which is when TCU got the ball back at its 15, there was time for the Frogs to do just that.

"They had enough time to go down the field,'' DeForest said. "We couldn't go into that mode.''

I agree. But given the history of that secondary, if Oklahoma State has the ball and a need to march all the way down the field in a short time today, I would find some mix of the two. The definition of insanity is said to be doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Like trusting your secondary to make a play.

For West Virginia's sake, you should probably hope that DeForest figures that one out from up there in the box.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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