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It’s been a wearisome week in the Mountain State and beyond.
On the home front in Tucker County, I was busy with the final edit of this article late Monday night when heavy snows took out our electric. Later in the week, still with no power and with few options at my disposal, I ventured across the mountains to Elkins with my hard drive in tow. Long story short, if not for the kindness (and power source) offered by the office of Dr. Eric Anger and the technical know-how provided by Dr. Matthew Downs (a forgiving Marshall grad, I might add), I couldn’t have submitted this edition of “Hot Reads” in time to run before the game. Many thanks, guys.
When it rains, it pours . . . but even the wind and snow of Frankenstorm can’t compare to the deluge Texas Christian head coach Gary Patterson has faced over the last 12 months.
Four weeks ago, an overwhelming adversity wrought by months of attrition – coupled with the weight of playing so many freshmen (28 overall) - finally caught up to Patterson’s Horned Frogs. Since the end of last season, Texas Christian had already parted ways with 20 players and several would-be starters for various off-the-field reasons when another issue outside the lines in the early hours of Oct. 4 struck the program with perhaps greater velocity than anything yet. Starting quarterback Casey Pachall, a 2011 second team all-Mountain West performer, was arrested by Fort Worth police and charged with DWI. The arrest quickly resulted in Pachall’s suspension from the team and ultimately the junior signal caller dropped out of school to pursue rehabilitation. The incident came on the heels of a sensational September by Pachall in which he had thrown 10 touchdowns against just one interception to guide Texas Christian to a 4-0 start.
It’s difficult to the extreme for a team to withstand these kinds of personnel hits without suffering through an aftermath – and the Frogs have suffered indeed. Since Pachall left the program, TCU has lost three of four games. Redshirt-freshman Trevone Boykin was thrust into duty as Pachall’s replacement. Boykin, ranked by some recruiting outlets as the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the nation coming out of West Mesquite (Tex.) High School two years ago, has had his moments. He engineered a 332-yard passing effort in a triple-OT loss to Texas Tech, in addition to a seminal performance in a 49-21 win over Baylor in which he accounted for 317 total yards and five scores. Boykin left last week’s loss to OSU, however, with an injury and was replaced in the final minutes by sophomore Matt Brown. Boykin’s status heading into the West Virginia game is questionable, although Patterson has said this week that he will start, but Boykin’s health only adds to a growing list of concerns for Patterson’s squad. Texas Christian, which earlier in the year lost starting tailback Waymon James to injury for the entire season, might also be without leading rusher Matthew Tucker on Saturday. Adding to the difficulty of TCU’s situation is the status of defensive end Stansly Maponga, a preseason first team all-Big 12 selection, which is unclear as well as the Frogs head to Morgantown.
Nevertheless, a Patterson defense is still a Patterson defense. Irrespective of defections and personnel issues, his units are invariably smart, physical and tougher than a two-dollar steak.
As expected, the Horned Frogs unique 4-2-5 scheme has once again proved exceptional in key areas, ranking No. 6 nationally in third down defense and No. 1 in the Big 12 against the run while leading the league with an eye-popping 22 takeaways (16 of which have come in TCU’s four road games).
“They are very sound in what they do,” said Dana Holgorsen earlier this week.” They don’t have a lot of busted assignments. There aren’t a lot of blown coverages. They don’t beat themselves on defense.”
To that point, during an offseason conversation I had with a friend who regularly faced Patterson’s defensive wizardry as an offensive coordinator in Conference USA, he assured me that – high flying Big 12 offenses or not – one team that would show up to play solid defense on a weekly basis would be Texas Christian. By and large that’s been true this fall, but TCU has been somewhat susceptible on the backend, allowing 300-plus yards through the air four times in five league games. The Frogs have helped compensate for this deficiency by picking off 15 passes, tops in the Big 12.
The Mountaineers have been mired in their own share of well-documented troubles against the pass, allowing 360 yards per game through the air to rank last in the nation while yielding a gaudy 28 completions of 25-plus yards. Perhaps more distressing is the fact that WVU ranks 119th in the country in pass efficiency defense – an underrated statistic in the pass happy Big 12 Conference where it can be a deceptively telling benchmark. In 2010, the Mountaineers ranked 13th nationally in this same category. A year ago, they finished 11th. This season, the only team ranked lower than West Virginia in pass efficiency defense is a leaky Colorado unit that has allowed 29 touchdown tosses while intercepting just three passes.
Just how bad have things gotten for the Mountaineer pass defense? West Virginia is the only team in the nation allowing more than 10 yards per pass attempt. For the sake of precision, the figure is actually 10.04. That’s not per completion – that’s per attempt. To embrace the magnitude of that figure, consider that the only team I could dig up in this century that finished a season allowing close to 10 yards per pass attempt was a winless 2001 Navy squad, which yielded 9.96.
So what has brought us to this unimaginable defensive crisis? Yes, youth has played a role (as has an overall lack of numbers) but the answer might be less complex than you think, and is tantamount to a pair of mismatched ships crossing in the night. What you have witnessed this year is quite simply a defense that lacks depth at key areas (WVU listed eight freshmen on its defensive two-deep against K-State) navigating a schedule replete with twice as many capable offenses (particularly passing attacks) as any slate in West Virginia history. Imagine if a whaling vessel sailed into open waters against the 16-inch guns of the USS New Jersey. Now imagine if it did so for three hours every Saturday. In recent weeks you’ve regrettably seen what that might look like.
The good news is that it can be fixed, or at least duct-taped, but don’t expect that to happen until WVU revives its lost pass rush and returns to the business of penetrating the backfield. During West Virginia’s 5-0 start, it averaged one sack every 13 opponents’ pass attempts and one tackle-for-loss every 10 snaps. Compare that to the ratios of one sack per every 33 pass attempts and one TFL for every 17 snaps that WVU has fallen to during its two-game skid and you begin to see why the Mountaineers defensive shortcomings have crept to the surface.
In its first five games West Virginia faced three offenses that are now ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring and allowed 460 yards (336 passing) and 35 points per contest. In its two losses – both against top 15 scoring offenses as well - the WVU defense has yielded a far more alarming average of 577 yards (411 passing) and 52 points.
Defensive pressure is what allows you to surrender yards by the bucket-full and still win games. It’s what puts a defense in position to force enough turnovers (WVU had 1.6 takeaways per game during the 5-0 start and 1.0 since), create enough third and longs and make enough key stops to help a team win.
• With 10 tackles-for-loss against Marshall (a total that included two each by Terence Garvin, Josh Francis and Karl Joseph), West Virginia forced the Herd into several unmanageable third down and long situations – including third and 17 and third and 14 in the first quarter alone. This helped WVU shuffle Rakeem Cato and the Marshall offense off the field three times in the Herd’s first four tries on third down, setting the stage for Geno Smith and West Virginia’s own offense to seize an early 13-0 lead that was never relinquished.
• Would the Mountaineers win over Maryland have ended differently if the tempo hadn’t been set by a Darwin Cook sack in the first quarter? Cook’s sack stopped a Terps drive to the WVU 30 and broke open a scoreless game with a forced fumble that was scooped up by Doug Rigg who rambled 51 yards for the first points of the game.
• Where might West Virginia have been without the two Garvin sacks in the second quarter against Baylor that led to a missed field goal and a punt?
• It was a fourth quarter sack by WVU’s Francis on second and eight in the Texas game that led to an incompletion on third and long and helped the Mountaineers cling to a 41-38 lead. On the next series it was a Pat Miller sack following an errant shotgun snap that led to a missed Longhorns field goal attempt to once again help WVU secure the lead and, ultimately, the win.
Gloss over for a moment the yards, or even the points allowed, in those games. Those aren't the entire focus. The plays listed above are exactly the type the West Virginia defense was making with enough frequency through five games to help Dana Holgorsen’s squad remain unbeaten. To right the aforementioned ship after consecutive losses, it’s incumbent upon the Mountaineer defense to rediscover that same big play aptitude and that same sense of opportunistic timing. Pressure at the point of attack – whether in the form of sacking the quarterback or taking down a ball carrier for a loss - is a deodorant that can conceal a lot of defensive odors and help win games.
The time is ripe for the West Virginia defense to reassert itself as a unit capable of making game-changing plays. Texas Christian’s inexperience under center has been on display since losing Pachall prior to the Iowa State game. In four games without him, TCU has turned the football over 11 times while allowing one sack every 16 pass attempts. Moreover, the Frogs have hit a slump in their efforts to move the chains, successfully converting just seven of their last 32 (22%) third down attempts.
Injuries and roster depletion have resulted in a TCU lineup that’s glued together like a ransom note. Despite considerable talent at several positions (including a dynamic receiving corps) this unpredictability is catching up to the Frogs in the form of inconsistency and uneven play. Last Saturday’s 36-14 loss at Oklahoma State snapped a national-best streak of 33 straight games in which TCU had scored 20-plus points. Throw into the mix Texas Christian’s newfound penchant for coughing up the football and this might be exactly the kind of offense a struggling West Virginia defense needs to make things right.
The time is now to stop the bleeding.
See you at the fifty.
Jed Drenning, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, Big 12 football, TCU Horned Frogs
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