MORGANTOWN - It would be easy to look at West Virginia's relatively difficult win - relative to the three that preceded it, that is - over Maryland and point to the Mountaineer defense when assigning blame.That wouldn't necessarily be correct, though.Yes, Maryland gained 351 yards of total offense, which was nearly 100 more than the nation's 119th-ranked offense was averaging. And yes, the Terps scored and converted first downs on some big plays that could have been avoided with simply solid tackling.But consider a few other points regarding that West Virginia defense following Saturday's 31-21 win over Maryland, courtesy of Joe DeForest, the first-year coordinator of the unit."We had five three-and-outs and forced three turnovers,'' DeForest said. "And any time you can hold an opponent to 21 points or fewer, that's good. We're not quite where we need to be, but we're getting better.''Indeed, save for some missed tackles that extended drives but did not result in scores, there isn't much to complain about on the West Virginia defense. Two of the three touchdowns Maryland scored came on big plays by freshman Stefon Diggs, and the other came on a third-down conversion.No those aren't acceptable, but they were more than made up for by three turnovers created by the defense and the five three-and-outs, which technically includes the four-and-out late in the game when the Terps went for it on fourth-and-21."The touchdown in the third quarter that they scored in two plays, that was just poor tackling, poor execution,'' DeForest said. "The touchdown in the first half, we called a blitz and the guy coming in off the edge unblocked fell down. We just have to execute better, but overall I thought our kids played well.''
Actually, the West Virginia defense is pretty much following the form almost everyone expected it to follow this season. DeForest came to WVU from Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys last year were among the worst teams in the country in yards and points allowed, but made up for it by leading the nation in turnover margin and allowing the offense more possessions to simply outscore people.Well, through three games, West Virginia's defense is not impressive in terms of yards or points allowed, but the turnover margin is six-to-one and three of those have actually or effectively resulted in scores."Basically we've scored or created three touchdowns,'' DeForest said, referring to fumble returns for TDs by Isaiah Bruce (against Marshall) and Doug Rigg (vs. Maryland) and Rigg's interception return to the 3-yard line against Marshall. "And that's big. In this game it was huge.''BRIEFLY: West Virginia broke out its new gray uniforms for the first time, including gray helmets. Save for the Nike Pro Combat outfit the team wore twice in 2010, it's the first time WVU has worn anything but blue helmets since 1979.After struggling through limited opportunities the first two games, Corey Smith punted seven times for an average of 44.6 yards against Maryland. But he also sent his first kickoff out of bounds, which got him replaced by Tyler Bitancurt, who also booted one out of bounds trying to keep it away from Diggs.Bitancurt also had his first field-goal opportunity of the season, making his only try from 37 yards.Record keeping: Geno Smith broke Marc Bulger's career record for pass attempts (1,023) with his second throw of the day and now has thrown 1,065 times. Tavon Austin passed Jock Sanders (206) as the all-time receptions leader and now has 208, but the record-breaker came on a pass he caught for a 2-yard loss. Austin's 13 catches also tied the school single-game record that Stedman Bailey set just a week ago.
Next week's Big 12 opener at home against Baylor is a noon start and will be televised by FX.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1