|Defensive tackle Will Clarke is one of just a handful of seniors on a WVU defense that has been struggling to shut down teams in the second half of late.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - For a Mountaineer defense that has had difficulty finishing games of late, this week's injury report certainly won't help matters as the Mountaineers wrap up their prep work for this Saturday's game at Kansas.
Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said he counted 15 players on this week's injury list, with 10 of those guys being out for the season. The two latest casualties are inside linebacker Jared Barber
(knee) and spur linebacker K.J. Dillon
"You can't use that as an excuse," said Patterson. "That's just football. It's a tough sport; it's part of the game."
Depth has been an issue all year for a WVU unit that has already defended 762 plays so far and is on pace to face more than 900 plays this season. In a typical year in the Big East, West Virginia used to defend about 120 fewer plays a year, or about 10 fewer plays per game than now.
That means a defense that is not deep to begin with, and has only four seniors among its top 22, is being taxed to the limit.
After coming up with several big red zone stops in the first half of last Saturday's game against Texas, the Mountaineers gave up 312 yards and 31 points in the second half in a game West Virginia lost, 47-40, in overtime. WVU couldn't get off the field on third down in the second half, surrendering seven straight third-down conversions at one point, and then failing to seal the deal on a fourth-and-seven play late in the game that could have decided the contest.
In its last four Big 12 games against Texas, TCU, Kansas State and Texas Tech, the West Virginia defense is allowing an average of 327.3 yards and 23.3 points in the second half.
Against K-State, WVU surrendered 306 yards and 28 second-half points, and against Texas Tech those figures were also high: 312 yards and 24 points. Not surprisingly, West Virginia lost both games.
Compare that to 179 yards and 10 points permitted after the first half in West Virginia's 30-27 overtime victory at TCU.
Depth, or lack thereof, has been the primary culprit.
"Depth is a problem to where the number of snaps is starting to pile up," admitted Holgorsen.
Kansas hasn't been tearing it up offensively this year, but the Jayhawks do pose unique problems because they play two quarterbacks (Jake Heaps and Montrell Cozart) and they have a very capable tailback in senior James Sims, who leads the team with 703 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Sims is currently fourth on KU's all-time rushing list with 3,185 career yards.
"They're definitely a team that you can't overlook," said Patterson. "I believe they had a 14-0 lead on Texas Tech and they came out and were running the ball right down their throat."
Kansas, like several teams in the Big 12, uses two different quarterbacks but the Jayhawks utilize them differently. Heaps is the passer, throwing for 1,204 yards and seven touchdowns, while Cozart is the runner, gaining 114 yards on the ground with one touchdown. It is clear what Kansas wants to do when each guy is in the game.
"They have the Heaps kid, who's a pocket guy who comes in and throws it around," said Holgorsen. "Then they put Cozart in and it turns into more of a running quarterback game. They are going to utilize him to try and move the ball forward. We need to recognize what their plan is going to be."
That is an issue because Kansas has been changing things up on almost a weekly basis - using Heaps and the passing game more against some teams or employing Cozart and Sims in the running game against others.
"They switch up what their plan of attack is going to be on a week-to-week basis so we need to discover early in the game what their plan of attack is going to be and make some adjustments on the sideline to defend that," noted Holgorsen.
With a number of younger guys expected to be on the field for the Mountaineer defense this Saturday, that is something certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Kansas is still searching for its first Big 12 victory under second-year coach Charlie Weis, who was 0-9 last season and is 0-6 in league action so far this year. Overall, Weis is just 3-18 with games left this season against West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas State.
"They've played six really good teams in a row and have played competitively," said Holgorsen. "We've got our hands full."