Much-maligned WVU defense striving for some consistency
LAWRENCE, Kan. - From a purely statistical point of view, it's difficult to praise just about anything West Virginia's defense has done of late.
Consider the last five games, for instance. Over that span the Mountaineers have surrendered 219 points, an average of 43.8 per game. Last year's historically inept defense gave up just 39.5 points per game. Granted 43.8 isn't as bad as the 49.6 average WVU surrendered during last year's five-game losing streak, but it's not encouraging, either.
Perhaps this is, however.
"For 12 series against Texas,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said, "they played as well as they possibly could have played.''
Indeed, for those 12 series and for many more this season, West Virginia's defense has proven itself far superior to the group that was among the worst in college football last season. That 2012 defense never had a chance and seldom was even competitive. It was arguably the worst the school has ever produced. Only two teams in the country gave up more passing yards and only six surrendered more points.
The rankings this season, in truth, aren't a lot better. West Virginia is No. 114 in pass defense, 100th in total defense and 91st in scoring defense. But there is certainly a different feel to the defense and far more confidence.
"You try not to look at the scoreboard,'' defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "We just go out there and we try to play. [Last week in a 47-40 loss to Texas] we got off the field pretty well in the first half. We didn't get off the field very well on third down in the second half, and it showed. That's what displayed on the scoreboard.''
Consider, though, the predicaments West Virginia's offense thrust upon the defense. Texas' first four scoring drives covered a total of 29 yards - 7, 27, minus-1 and minus 4. All came after WVU's offense turned the ball over.
Three of those four times, the defense managed to hold Texas to field goals.
"We put them in as bad a situation as you could with our ball security issues and problems at quarterback,'' Holgorsen said. "With that said, they played phenomenal. They gave up 13 points in two and a half quarters.
"But if you want to be a great defense, that has to continue. You can't have four straight series where they complete third-and-long plays, run right past you and score.''
That's just what happened in the second half, just as it has happened routinely in the second half of the last four games. West Virginia's defense will play phenomenally for a half or more and then play well on first and second downs in the second half, too. But then Texas or Kansas State or TCU, or whoever it might be, begins converting third-and-impossible or fourth-and-a-prayer and it all comes apart.
The most interesting part about this defense, however, is that even if it's just for a half or three quarters or whatever length of time, more often than not it is doing it with a ton of backups on the field. The Mountaineers lost two more regulars in the rotation last week when linebacker Jared Barber and linebacker/safety K.J. Dillon went down for the rest of the season. That's eight players lost for the season and there have been at least eight more who have missed time or games because of injuries.
And this was a team that didn't seem all that deep to begin with.
"I think I counted 15 guys on defense who are on the injury report and 10 of those guys are out for the season,'' Paterson said. "But you can't use that as an excuse. That's just football. It's a tough sport and it's part of the game.
"Look at our offense, for example. [Receiver] Mario Alford was banged up early in the year, now he steps right in. It's no different on defense. People just have to step in. I always tell the backups: 'you're one play away from being a starter.' You have to prepare. It may be game 11 before you get that shot to play. They have to get out there and execute. You can't use that as an excuse. No one cares.''
The good news for the defense is that the offensive powerhouses on the schedule are all in the rear-view mirror. Kansas, today's opponent, is 117th in the country in total offense and 116th in scoring. The Jayhawks aren't even very good at any phase of offense, ranking 113th in passing and 91st in rushing.
Iowa State, the foe in two weeks, is roughly the same.
The hope is that some of those backups will continue to step in, the third-down defense will improve against teams that aren't very good on any down and the Mountaineers will actually show some defensive improvement that lasts.
"It goes to the preparation way back in the season, when we made sure our second and third strings we're paying attention and taking quality reps,'' Patterson said. "When situations like this happen, they can fill in and there won't be a drop-off.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.