Keeping their heads up
MORGANTOWN - If there were a quick fix available to cure West Virginia's defensive ills, this would be a good time to find it.
The Mountaineers just aren't going to be able to score 10 touchdowns every week, a fact that has already been proven in games against Maryland and James Madison. So giving up nine, as WVU did in last week's 70-63 win over Baylor, just won't cut it.
There are no quick fixes, though. Instead, as No. 8 West Virginia (4-0) prepares to play No. 11 Texas Saturday in Austin, the Mountaineers just have to make as much progress as possible.
"We always look to make changes if we need to, both from a schematic standpoint and a personnel standpoint,'' WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. "But college football is what it is. We can't call somebody and ask for a trade or pick somebody off of waivers. Those guys are guys that have played around here for a long time and we've got to get them better.
"Or we've got to get young guys, the 10 freshmen on defense, we've got to get them to improve.''
Thus is the tricky part about making changes to a defense that through four games this season has statistical rankings in the NCAA that roughly mirror those of the team's offense - in other words, a reverse image.
Through those four games, West Virginia ranks third from the bottom of the country's 120 FBS schools in pass defense and among the bottom 15 in total defense and pass efficiency defense. The Mountaineers are also 94th in scoring defense and the only yardage or points statistic that looks anything but awful - 38th against the run - comes with the disclaimer that teams haven't had to run the football against WVU.
But simply replacing players in the lineup isn't as easy as it might seem. Replace them with whom?
"We have a limited number of players and a limited number of possibilities,'' defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "We have to make the players we have better.''
Most, if not all, the issues with personnel regard the secondary, of course. While there are certainly concerns about getting more pressure on the opposing quarterback or fortifying against the run game, those are mostly scheme and game-planning issues.
But in the secondary, starting cornerbacks Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, along with true freshman safety Karl Joseph, all had big problems with Baylor's passing game, which generated most of the Bears' 700 yards and 63 points.
That might be the thinnest area on the defense, though, especially at corner. Freshman Nana Kyeremeh and sophomore Ishmael Banks are the only players who have really even been tested behind Miller and Jenkins.
And what happens if one of the corners - or anyone, for that matter - is yanked for poor performance and his replacement does no better? Confidence is an issue, and there's the potential there for destroying that in multiple players.
Not that some of that confidence hasn't already taken a big hit, which is something DeForest is trying to guard against.
"It's human nature to get down on yourself,'' he said. "We can't let outside distractions or outside comments deter from what we're trying to do as a defense, which is to get better each and every week and each and every day.''
Against Texas, that West Virginia defense will face a different challenge than it did against Baylor, one more resembling that of Maryland, but on steroids. The Longhorns will try to control the ball and the clock with a run game and attempt to limit West Virginia's offensive possessions and rhythm, but they will do it with a roster full of five-star recruits and a passing game capable of putting up big numbers of its own.
The hope is that West Virginia's up-front defense will be more of a factor in a game against a team that doesn't throw the ball so much, but that group hasn't really been tested by this kind of ground game.
"The front seven played well. Shaq [Rowell], Doug Rigg, Will [Clarke], Terence [Garvin], Jorge [Wright], Isaiah [Bruce] and Josh Francis all played well,'' Holgorsen said. "They were holding Baylor to two yards per carry, and that's pretty good considering Baylor came in averaging over 250 yards rushing.
"And they were disruptive at times when they were rushing the passer. We need a little bit more out of the defensive line when it comes pressuring the quarterback.''
And keeping the confidence up is critical, although that seems a tough task after what happened last week.
"There are different ways of developing confidence. One is being successful,'' Holgorsen said. "There are guys back in the secondary that have been successful in the past, but others are true freshmen.
"The other way is to man up a little bit and work hard. One of the things we've told every one of our players is that no one is going to give you anything. You have to earn everything, so if you don't like the result, you have to work hard in order to change it. That isn't just a reality in football, that's a reality in life the last time I checked.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1