A West Virginia defense that was knocked down to the canvass a couple of weekends ago at Baylor will try and pick itself back up Saturday afternoon against 16th-ranked Texas Tech at Milan Puskar Stadium.
All of the progress the defense has made in its first five games this year under Keith Patterson was seemingly wiped out two Saturdays ago in Waco.
Baylor put up 872 total yards and 73 points – without the benefit of a defensive or special teams touchdown – against a Mountaineer defense that was clearly defenseless at times. The Bears scored on long pass plays, long runs, sustained drives, you name it … and it has left the personable Patterson scratching his head.
“It’s very disappointing because I felt we got better and better for the first five games,” he said Tuesday evening. “Then I felt like we took two steps backwards against Baylor.”
Considering the score and the total yardage allowed, perhaps more than two steps backwards were taken. The most disconcerting part of West Virginia’s performance against Baylor was its inability to stop the run. The Bears gouged the Mountaineers for 476 yards and an average of 7.8 yards per rush, which harkened back memories of Phil Elmassian’s Mountaineer run stoppers of 2001 which was among the worst in school history.
This year, WVU by and large has fared pretty well against the run. West Virginia limited William & Mary to 102 yards rushing in the opener, surrendered 136 to Georgia State (with 65 of those coming on one run) two weeks later, held Maryland to 120 yards and then completely shut down Oklahoma State’s ground attack by surrendering just 111 yards, including a memorable fourth-quarter goal line stand that helped the Mountaineers win the game.
But in its two road losses to Oklahoma and Baylor, West Virginia’s run defense has disappeared, allowing 784 yards and seven TDs on 119 attempts for an average of 6.6 yards per carry, and that is simply not going to cut it.
Actually, if you throw in last year’s bowl performance when Syracuse was able to run for 369 yards and two touchdowns, West Virginia’s rush defense has now allowed 1,622 yards, 14 touchdowns and an average of 4.9 yards per carry in its last seven games, accentuated by Baylor’s ability to run virtually at will on Oct. 5.
“Now, we just kind of hit the restart button and we are trying to get off on the right foot again,” said Patterson. “Go back and emphasize the things that we’ve been emphasizing all year long, the fundamentals and trying to be able to play with a lot of passion and energy.”
The passion and energy were clearly lacking in Waco. Some of the issues were likely the result of the grind of playing five straight weeks and a fresh Baylor team having two weeks to prepare for West Virginia, and some of it was also likely due to the fact that Mountaineers had some key defensive performers shelved such as linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier this week that the sophomore’s tender hamstring should be good to go on Saturday.
“We will get him back in the mix because he was our most productive linebacker after three games,” said Holgorsen. “He will make us better defensively.”
Overall, Holgorsen hopes the Baylor performance was just a blip on the radar screen and not a harbinger of the things to come.
“Kids are resilient,” he said. “It was a little bit of a buzz saw because Baylor played very well. You cannot sit there and dwell on it forever – you have to put that one to rest and get back out and keep working. That is what we did, and we expect to have a lot better defensive performance on Saturday.”
If West Virginia doesn’t, Texas Tech is quite capable of ringing up the scoreboard the way Baylor did two weeks ago. The Red Raiders are currently 13th in the country in scoring offense averaging 41.8 points per game, third in the nation in passing offense averaging 408.8 yards per game and sixth in total offense averaging 544 yards per game.
Indeed, it appears to be another big challenge for West Virginia’s defense on Saturday.
“We have another undefeated team – Texas Tech is a top 15-team in the country,” said Patterson. “People forget that these games are now five hours long. There is a lot of mental stress that goes into each and every game. You have to be able to handle that. The mental part of it is probably just as taxing as the physical part of it.”
And that probably rings doubly true for defenses that struggle stopping the other team, especially on the ground.