West Virginia’s young and inexperienced defense got tossed into the frying pan two weeks ago against Baylor. Now, the Mountaineer D is going right back into the cooking vat this weekend against Texas Tech.
The 4-1 Red Raiders have a strong-armed quarterback in Seth Doege, and a talented and deep receiver corps that features six players with 10 catches or more and eight guys with at least one touchdown reception so far this year. Plus, Tech has three runners averaging more than 4.6 yards per carry – not exactly a walk in the park for a Mountaineer defense still trying to get things ironed out.
“Offensively, they run a similar system to what we do,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “They vary their tempo, they want to establish the run, they have really good skill at receiver, they have two or three backs that can really go and they have a quarterback that is a veteran and understands the system and the game of football.”
Two weeks ago, West Virginia (5-0) ran into a barrage of big plays against Baylor, the Bears accumulating 700 yards of total offense, including 581 through the air. At times, Baylor quarterback Nick Florence was able to pass the ball down the field seemingly at will against a Mountaineer secondary that permitted nine passes of 20 yards or longer for the afternoon. Against Texas, the number of 20-plus-yard pass plays was reduced to five. For the season, West Virginia has allowed 29 plays of 20 yards or longer, with 25 of those coming through the air.
By comparison, in 13 games last year the Mountaineer defense surrendered 48 plays of 20 yards or longer (31 of those were passes) which averages out to 3.7 20-plus-yard plays per game. This year, the defense is giving up 20-yard plays at a 5.8 per-game clip.
“We’re stopping the run,” said West Virginia co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest. “We’re making them one-dimensional, and now we’ve just got to get better in the back end.”
Injuries in the secondary have certainly played a part in West Virginia’s early season difficulties, but DeForest refuses to use that as an excuse.
“We’ve got to take what we have and make it work,” he said. “We’re down (safety) Travis Bell
and that hurts our speed package. That’s why we weren’t able to go speed against Texas. We had to go four-down, so we’re going to have to do some creative things to try and get more speed on the field. That speed, unfortunately, may be inexperienced right now.”
By and large, West Virginia did another solid job defending the run against Texas. With the exception of Johnathan Gray’s 49-yard second quarter jaunt that set up Joe Bergeron’s short TD run, the defense was able to bottle up Texas’ touted running game. The Longhorns came into last Saturday’s game averaging more than 190 yards per game on the ground, but managed only 135 on 39 carries against the Mountaineers.
“The one run was a mistake on our part for not getting lined up, but I think our front seven is doing a great job,” said DeForest.
On that play, Texas actually lined up in the wrong formation, causing West Virginia to also line up incorrectly. However, Texas adjusted but West Virginia didn’t.
“Terence (Garvin) set the front and then they reset the formation because we messed up and he did it without resetting our front,” said DeForest. “We didn’t have a guy over there that we should have had.”
DeForest says it is details like that that much be cleaned up.
“You just tell them once you set the front you set the front, regardless (of what the other team does),” said DeForest. “That way everyone is on the same page. If he resets the front like he tried to do, he’s got to get the Buck (linebacker) to the other side. Our rule is once you set the front it’s over.”
This Saturday, West Virginia will be facing an offense that has produced at least 360 yards in all five games this year, including a season-high 702 yards in a 49-14 victory over New Mexico. Texas Tech is particularly effective on third down, converting almost 58 percent of its third down tries this season to rank third nationally in that category. On the flip side, West Virginia has struggled getting off the field in that area, allowing its opponents to convert 51 percent of its third down tries to place the Mountaineers 109th nationally.
The fact that Texas Tech likes to spread the ball around will make it more difficult for West Virginia to simply hone in on one or two players.
“Who are you going to double?” asked DeForest. “Every guy has to be accountable for his coverage. That’s the problem they create is that they spread you out, just like Baylor and just like our offense. They dink and dunk the ball to everybody across the field and then they will throw it deep. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Doege is not very tall (listed at 6-feet-1) and he has had some balls tipped at the line of scrimmage that have resulted in interceptions this year. In fact, he has thrown pick-sixes in consecutive games against Iowa State and Oklahoma and has thrown six interceptions so far for the season. He threw 10 picks in 12 games last season. That is something the defense will try and exploit.
“There is always an opportunity (for turnovers), but it’s whether we can take advantage of it or not,” said DeForest. “We’re trying to play more aggressive than we did and attack the football and our job is to affect the ball every chance we get, whether it’s a pick or stripping the ball out.”
“He relies on his arm strength a lot and some of those balls have been deflected,” added co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “That’s going to be the key to the game as far as we need to force more turnovers.”Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.