Ready to pick up the pace
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Given all the angst over the state of West Virginia's offense through four games this season, it's only natural that the performance of the defense has been overshadowed.
But it's been, in a word, good.
Through four games, the Mountaineers have given up just 19.2 points, 323.5 yards (155 passing) and 15 first downs per game, while forcing an average of seven punts and holding teams to a 35 percent success rate on third downs.
Compare that to a year ago, when the averages were 38.1 points, 473.6 yards (313.7 passing), 23.4 first downs, four punts and a 46 percent success rate on third downs.
Granted, the competition has not been the same, but last season WVU allowed even the bad teams it played to run up yards and points. Against the two BCS-level teams West Virginia has played this season (3-0 Oklahoma and 4-0 Maryland), the numbers are still significantly improved.
Things are about to get a bit more dicey, however.
In the next three games over the next four weeks, West Virginia (2-2) faces arguably the three best offenses in the Big 12. This week brings No. 11 Oklahoma State (3-0) to Mountaineer Field for a noon game (ESPN). After that is a trip to Baylor, then a home game with Texas Tech after a week off. Those are the top three scoring teams in the league and three of the top four in total offense.
All three present a challenge WVU has yet to really face this season.
"They try to snap it about every 20 seconds,'' WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said of Oklahoma State. "That'll be different than what we've seen.''
Through those first four games, the only opponent that ever really tried to play fast on offense was Oklahoma, and even then nothing like the pace of the Cowboys and the next two opponents.
"Right now, Oklahoma State's trying the play faster than Oregon,'' Holgorsen said. "And if you think this is going to be fast, then next week Baylor's going to be even faster.''
In order to help prepare, Holgorsen said West Virginia will send its own offense against the defense more than usual this week in practice. Normally the defense faces primarily the scout team offense during the week.
Given West Virginia's offensive issues this season, however, perhaps having the defense go against the offense won't be much of an aid.
No, what should be of more help is how West Virginia's defense has schemed and prepared since the beginning of camp. Even though few opponents so far have tried to play fast against the Mountaineers, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has attempted to structure his unit in a way that prepares for fast tempo and to get the kind of players who can adapt to it.
It's all about flexibility.
"It's not like you can say, 'OK, this week we're playing an up-tempo team and we're going to develop this scheme [to address it],' '' Patterson said. "It had better be part of your system. And it's part of our system, being able to communicate from the sideline to the field and the field back to the sideline.''
The one and only reason teams try to play fast is to limit what defenses can do to stop them, primarily through substitution. If an offense can play quickly and change looks without substituting, the defense is forced to defend those different looks without substituting. Even without changing the offensive looks, running plays at a fast pace limits the time the defense has to make adjustments.
Patterson, though, is steadfast in his belief that if a defense is running a flexible scheme with flexible players, the offense loses much of the advantage normally created by playing fast.
"The offense is never going to dictate what we want to do defensively. I disagree with [offensive coaches who say they can do that by running at a fast pace],'' Patterson said. "Now, do I believe [the offense] can limit some of the things that you try to do [on defense]? Maybe so, because of the tempo. But if you have a communication progression in place, I do believe you can run your defense as normal. They go fast? We just call defense fast.''
Of course, that means being flexible on defense with the same personnel.
"If you have that type of player, which I think we have a few, then it creates problems for the offense,'' Patterson said. "That's the gist of our package. We're a multiple 3-4 and that's the way we're personneled. Being multiple means we can move from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme to a 3-3 stack team. That's a handful to prepare for in the course of a week.''
In order to be able to switch seamlessly, however, it takes a handful of versatile players, which Patterson has tried to develop. He needs a few linebackers who can easily step down and become defensive ends. He needs safeties who can play as linebackers if called upon.
And so far he seems to have found a few. For instance, Brandon Golson sometimes spends as much time lined up as a defensive end as he does at linebacker. Freshman Daryl Worley is a big cornerback who can play as a nickel back safety near the line of scrimmage or cover the best receiver on the field.
"When you have those hybrid-type bodies - guys who can play on their feet, guys who can stick their hand on the ground and play - that definitely poses a problem [for offenses],'' Patterson said. "When they see us send four defensive linemen on the field, shoot, they probably know what coverage is coming. But when you can sit there and move out of a four-man front to a three-man front with the same people on the field, that's an issue.''
Patterson has adapted his defensive philosophy after years of working on teams that had wide-open offenses. Competing with or against coaches like Holgorsen and Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris have pretty much dictated his defensive philosophy.
"What we do on defense, everything I like and try to do from a defensive standpoint, are things that spread offenses don't like,'' Patterson said. "I've tried to build our package to defend those offenses because I don't believe in allowing an offense ever to dictate to us. So we have a plan and adjustments for everything.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.