MORGANTOWN - In many ways it's hard to fault West Virginia's defense for the way the Mountaineers' season is going.Yes, there have been some eye-popping scoring totals posted by WVU opponents this season, some of which haven't been seen in decades.When the Mountaineers gave up 49 points in a loss at Syracuse it was the most surrendered by a West Virginia team in two decades.Rutgers torched WVU for 31 points ... in the first half.Maryland is 2-7 and struggled so badly on offense it changed quarterbacks. But even before the change, the Terps put up 31 against WVU.Louisville came into last week's game at Mountaineer Field ranked No. 113 in the country in scoring and promptly put up 38 points.
How then, to explain this: A season after finishing third in the country in total defense and losing seven starters to graduation, West Virginia has slipped only to No. 23 in total defense this season. That's still better than 97 other FBS schools across the country.The Mountaineers aren't giving up a ton of yards. Opponents are averaging just 332 per game. More than half the teams in the current Associated Press Top 25 surrender more yards per game. That includes No. 23 Cincinnati, WVU's opponent Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium.Only a handful, though, give up more than the 27.4 points per game WVU is allowing opponents.
Why so many points and yet so few yards? Well, some of the biggest points allowed by WVU this season weren't allowed by the defense. Both LSU and Syracuse scored momentum-changing touchdowns on kickoff returns. Louisville essentially won last week's game because of a blocked field goal return for a score. Marshall ran back a punt, although that one didn't really matter.But more than anything, WVU's defense has been put into awful positions, both by the team's offense and special teams.On offense, the Mountaineers have turned the ball over only 14 times this season, which isn't terrible. It ranks 44th in the country, well in the top half.But of those 14 turnovers, eight have come in WVU territory and two others at the 50-yard line. Opposing offenses, be it due to turnovers or other factors, have not had to work very hard for a lot of their points.Still, no one wants to make excuses.
"That's part of the game,'' defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "The bottom line is no matter where you go out and play defense you've got to do a good job. The kids understand that. We just haven't been consistent doing the things we need to do.''
It's hard to argue, though, that many of the places on the field West Virginia has been asked to play defense this season have been tough spots. Opponents have mustered 38 drives this season (not counting special-teams scores) that resulted in either touchdowns or field goals. Of those 38, seven have covered 18 yards or less and 14 have covered 50 yards or less.On 21 of opponents' 38 scoring drives, they began either in WVU territory or beyond their own 40-yard line. Louisville last week even got a field goal after losing 7 yards on a possession following a Mountaineer fumble.Again, though, that can't be used as an excuse."I don't care what the situation is,'' first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Your job is to go out there and stop people.''It's not just turnovers, though, that have put West Virginia's defense in bad situations. The Mountaineers have had four punts this season travel 14 yards or less - two each by Corey Smith and Matt Molinari - have had 27- and 28-yard punts and have given up a handful of long kickoff returns (aside from the two scores).Each of those put the defense in bad situations, and on several occasions that defense responded. But it still meant points surrendered, like a 1-yard Rutgers "drive'' after a 28-yard punt from the end zone.
The bottom line, though, is that those are the times when the defense has to play its best."On the times we shanked a punt they still had to go 55 yards and 65 yards. That's not a tremendously short field. That's normal to the point that you've got to play defense,'' Holgorsen said, referring to two shanks against Louisville. "If you keep looking for excuses then you're not going to get any better. There are plenty of ways to spin everything in football, but I don't buy into that.''Casteel agreed, even if the numbers are all working against his unit. Of those 10 turnovers the offense has made in its own end, one was returned for a touchdown (freshman backup quarterback Paul Millard's first pass against Connecticut). Of the other nine, opponents drove 50, 44, 35, 11 and 1 yards for touchdowns and went minus-7 and 1 yards for field goals.Only twice the defense held with three-and-outs, once at midfield and again at the 35."The kids have been put in some tough situations at times, but if you look back last year they were put in some tough situations and they were able to get out of it,'' Casteel said. "It's part of the game.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org