All Eyes on WVU's Defense This Fall
There isn’t anybody involved with this year’s West Virginia defense who wants to remember what happened last season.
No, 2012 clearly wasn’t the year of defense for the Mountaineers, which begs the question: What in the name of Sam Huff, Darryl Talley and Bruce Irvin happened?
Well, quite a lot, that’s for sure.
At the risk of bringing up some unpleasant memories, here were the essentials … West Virginia established school records for points allowed (495), passing yards allowed (4,063), touchdown passes given up (38) and total offense surrendered (6,142).
There is nothing in recent seasons that even remotely approaches those depressing figures – the 363 points given up in 2000, the 3,378 passing and 5,087 total yards allowed in 2003 or the 23 touchdown passes surrendered in 1997 – all pale in comparison.
In fact, last year’s secondary gave up nearly three year’s worth of touchdown passes alone (15 were given up in 2011, 12 in 2010 and 19 in 2009 for a total of 46).
In the last 15 years, the West Virginia defense that probably came the closest in futility was the 2001 unit that was bludgeoned to the tune of 213.2 yards per game on the ground with nine different teams running for at least 175 yards in a game that season. Yet it’s difficult to gauge how bad the pass defense was that year because nobody was foolish enough to throw the ball when they could run it that effectively against the Mountaineers. Still, despite its troubles stopping the run, that WVU D was actually 14 points per game better than last year’s.
Last season, the defense didn't make the same mistakes twice - they seemingly made them five or six times, just to make sure they had them all covered. No, not even the French in 1940 surrendered territory faster than the Mountaineers of 2012 did.
But new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is setting out to change all of that this fall. He’s got more talent, more size, more experience and more of them to work with in 2013, plus, he’s got a proven track record of stopping people.
His Tulsa defenses were consistently known for producing turnovers and negative yardage plays, and during his one season working at Pitt in 2011, Patterson took players recruited for Dave Wannstedt’s preferred 4-3 scheme and molded them into a 3-4 unit that was one of the Big East’s stingiest by the end of the season.
When asked to evaluate West Virginia’s two most recent groups of offense-stoppers, Patterson says it’s really not a fair comparison to make.
“It’s two different systems and two different methods of trying to accomplish where you are headed,” he said recently. “It’s comparing an apple to an orange, but I really like where we are this year. I think our kids have an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I feel really good about it.”
Perhaps a better comparison would be pitting this year’s defense against the Pitt group that he coached in 2011 when the Panthers had five defenders on the all-league team and ranked third nationally in sacks, 12th in tackles for losses and 14th in third-down defense.
“I think we’re farther ahead,” Patterson admitted. “I think we have more defense and the reason why is because when I was at Pitt we were converting from a 4-3 to a 3-4 system. It took longer for those kids to buy in. Once they did, if you look at the last eight, nine games of the season, we got better and better and better.”
In Pitt’s first three games against Buffalo, Maine and Iowa – hardly offensive juggernauts by any stretch of the imagination, incidentally – the Panthers were giving up 25.3 points, 336.3 passing and 416.3 total yards per game. In the last nine games, however, Pitt’s defense was able to reduce that to 24.5 points, 225.4 passing and 367.7 total yards per game.
At this point, Mountaineer football fans will take any improvement at all, and thankfully, Patterson said he’s seeing plenty of signs of that happening so far.
“One, I think our kids are playing with great effort. Two, I like the way our kids are buying into sound fundamentals – the control of their feet on the snap of the ball and getting their eyes on what they’re supposed to be looking at,” he said. “It sounds very simplistic, but when you’re moving people, changing your anchor points up front … when you’re playing different coverages, what you’re supposed to be looking at changes constantly, especially if you are a second-level player.”
Patterson said there are several personality traits that he expects his defense to take on this year.
“No. 1, we are going to be disciplined. We’re going to be a sound, fundamental football team,” he said. “I know that sounds like coach-speak but when they watch us they see us line up – just getting in our stances and getting lined up – they are going to see a disciplined, sound, fundamental football team.
“The other thing you are going to see are kids playing with relentless effort,” he continued. “We ask our kids for a five-second blowout on every play. If we do that, and we’re getting them to buy into it, the more people we get running through the whistle the more opportunities you’re going to have to make tackles for losses, three-and-outs and turnovers.”
There were many instances last season when a busted play, a missed assignment or a blown coverage led to a long scoring play and not beating themselves has obviously been one of Patterson’s major points of emphasis this fall.
“If you are out of where you are supposed to be by a tenth of an inch you’re wrong,” he said. “I want our coaches to coach with a critical eye. I want our players to play with an attention to detail and to do that is something that has to be emphasized every single day. We’ve been doing that since January and it’s just a continual process. Every time we take the field I see us getting a little bit better at it; a little bit better and a little bit better.”
More than anything, Patterson believes consistency is the key to fielding a more effective defense in 2013.
“I think they understand that that’s what it’s going to take to be great,” he said. “I think we’ve spelled out to them the difference between good and the difference between great. Good teams do things right most of the time, and great teams do things right all the time.”
Here’s to hoping that can be accomplished this fall - at least most of the time.
Keith Patterson, West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Big 12 Conference football
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