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Tough tests await Mountaineer defense

AP Photo
West Virginia's Will Clarke (98) and Travis Bell track down Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown.

MORGANTOWN - Truth be told, it's difficult to accurately gauge how much better West Virginia's defense is this year as opposed to last. With the Big 12 portion of the schedule set to begin in earnest Saturday with a home game against Oklahoma State, the answers should be forthcoming.

This much is certain, however. The Mountaineers are getting absolutely no help from their offense.

Because of that - six turnovers being the major culprit, but not the only one - West Virginia's defense appears worse than what it might actually be. Saturday's 37-0 loss to Maryland in Baltimore is the perfect example.

WVU gave up just 330 yards. That's pretty good. In fact, three of WVU's first four opponents have gained fewer yards against the Mountaineers than every 2012 opponent did, save for FCS James Madison and wretched Kansas.

But because of offensive futility and mistakes, Maryland had to drive just 24 and 6 yards for two of its three offensive touchdowns. Another touchdown was scored on an interception. And three times West Virginia held Maryland to field goals on possessions that in 2012 almost always seemed to end in touchdowns.

Now, throw in the fact that Maryland held a time of possession edge of more than 16 minutes - in great part because WVU's offense couldn't stay on the field (out of 13 legitimate possessions, only two lasted more than three minutes and five were less than one minute) - and it's easy to see that surrendering 37 points isn't due to defensive ineptitude.

Again, though, the real tests are yet to come. Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech are arguably the three best offenses in the Big 12 and are WVU's next three opponents. How the WVU defense fares against those will answer a lot of questions.

It will also be telling to see how the defense reacts if it continues to be put in no-win situations by its own offense. So far, the Mountaineers are at least saying all the right things.

"This is one game. A lot of bad things happened that make you go, 'Whoa,'" safety Darwin Cook said after Saturday's lopsided loss. "But if we fix a few of those things, we'll be OK.''

In many ways, Cook and the other defenders sound exactly like the offensive players of a year ago. That group would go out and score points at a rate good enough to win almost any game, but then lose 50-49 (Oklahoma), 39-38 (TCU) or 55-34 (Oklahoma State). Even when the Mountaineers won, it was because the offense scored 70 against Baylor or 48 against Texas while the defense was giving up a combined 108 points.

Now the defense is holding its own, but it doesn't matter because the offense is generating 62 passing yards against Maryland and a combined one touchdown against the only two BCS level opponents it has faced, the Terps and Oklahoma.

"Yeah, but it's a team sport,'' defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "There are a lot of things we can get better at.

"Our goal is always to give the ball back to the offense as soon as possible.''

It would be nice, though, if the offense would do something with it when it gets it. Twice in the second half Saturday the defense handed the ball to the offense on turnovers inside the Maryland 35. The offense ran a combined three plays on those two possessions before turning it back over to the Terps.

"All we can do is just play the next play,'' said nose tackle Shaq Rowell. "It's all we can do.''

Those plays figure to get harder beginning this week. Oklahoma State arrives for Saturday's noon game (televised by ESPN) having scored 115 points in its last two games and with a week off to rest and prepare. A week later, in Waco, brings a Baylor offense that has scored 69, 70 and 70 points and is averaging - this is not a misprint - over 750 yards of total offense. Baylor has this week off. Texas Tech the following week is averaging 408 yards passing. The Red Raiders don't have an open week before playing WVU, but do have bottom feeders Kansas and Iowa State as the lead-ins.

Oh, and those next three opponents are also a combined 10-0. It's guaranteed the first two will be unbeaten when they play West Virginia and it seems likely the third will be, too. WVU has already played two teams (3-0 Oklahoma and 4-0 Maryland) that are still undefeated.

Then again, that just means opportunities exist.

"We've still got how many more games left, eight?'' Cook asked. "We just have to take them one by one and see what happens.''

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


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