No simple fix for WVU's troubles
MORGANTOWN - For two weeks now, Dana Holgorsen has watched his defense fail even to slow an opponent, a nuisance that has contributed mightily - although not singularly - to West Virginia's back-to-back losses.
There is, after all, the not-so-trivial matter of an offense stuck in neutral that has also weighed in.
But even before the offense went south, things weren't exactly rosy on the defensive side of the ball. It just didn't seem as critical because the offense was able to outgun everyone else during a 5-0 start.
So what's the problem?
Well, to Holgorsen's credit, he hasn't pointed fingers. You may disagree with me on that, given his consistent and unwavering contention that there is nothing wrong with West Virginia's defensive scheme. If there's nothing wrong with the scheme, or so goes the party line, then he must be throwing the players who execute it under the bus, right?
Well, no. He's thrown everyone under the bus, from his players to his coaches to himself.
"I'm not saying that, no,'' Holgorsen said this week when presented with the ergo notion that if it's not the scheme then it must be the players. "We have to do a better job as coaches. We have to put them in better position to be successful. It's a combination.
"Nobody is pointing fingers anywhere. Nobody is doing that. We all have to understand, as coaches, that we need to put them in a position to be successful and what their technique needs to be. Ultimately, it comes down to getting them out there in practice and having them get better at what we want them to do. There are only a certain number of coverages or plays that we can run. If you try to make up for our deficiencies with more plays, it's going to confuse them.''
OK, so that absolves the players of complete blame. It's players and coaches, all in one big what-just-happened mess. Got it. It's a team effort.
But what of that scheme?
It would be far too simplistic to merely pin it on that. It would also be wrong. West Virginia fans complained for years about playing a junk defense, the 3-3-5. The flexible 3-4/4-3 front is not a junk defense. It's as mainstream as they come.
At some point, though, one has to question how it's being taught and who it's being taught to. If it's not the scheme, then it has to be either the coaches who are coaching it or the players who are playing it, right? There are no other variables.
But when you start delving into that, well, there are just a whole bunch of unknowns.
It's hard to imagine that West Virginia's talent level has dropped dramatically in such a short time, but remember that these players are mastering a different scheme in a far more difficult league in which to play defense.
And it's just as difficult to believe that coaches like Joe DeForest and Steve Patterson, successful elsewhere, have forgotten how to coach. But they are also in new positions (particularly DeForest, who has never been in charge of a defense), asking players they did not recruit to play a defense they don't know in a league that's foreign to them.
No, there's not a simple fix.
There are, however, things that can be done to mitigate the damage and mask some of the weaknesses in a defense that is surrendering yards and points at an almost historic rate. If West Virginia is to survive the final five weeks of the season, it's probably going to have to come by that route rather than basic improvement.
In other words, getting better would be great, but short of that someone had better start coming up with more creative ways to hide the fact that this defense isn't very good. And so far, West Virginia's coaches have failed at that.
Again, it's not the scheme. The very notion of playing the scheme West Virginia is playing is to be adaptable. Simply put (too simply, actually), it can easily morph from a unit aligned to stop the run to one set up to stop the pass. It is designed to mix fronts and coverages and adapt to what's happening.
That this defense hasn't adapted to opponents figuring out how to mix routes and get receivers embarrassingly uncovered is what has made it dead last in the country in pass defense and giving up an average of 53 points to four Big 12 opponents.
Holgorsen insists that coverage tricks have been tried. Hopefully they haven't been exhausted.
"We've tried to cover some areas up,'' Holgorsen said. "Within our defensive scheme there are different coverages and blitzes. If it doesn't work, we can go to another one. It's a multiple defense.
"When [Kansas State] hit us on a cover two with a seam route, we went to cover three. When they started to hit us on out routes [because of the deep coverage], we went to a press-and-bail cover four. We mix things up, but it ultimately comes down to execution. You guys saw where a couple of times the ball was in the air and we had a guy there. They made the plays. How can we get our guys in any better position than that? We constantly try to tweak it.''
Tricks, though, will get you only so far. The bottom line is that West Virginia's defensive coaches have to do a better job of figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the players on the field and adapting the defense to that. It's not a matter of changing the scheme, but recognizing what is possible within that scheme given the talent on hand.
And that's up to the defensive coaches.
"We have to make things more manageable. We can't try to manufacture plays or people. We can't come up with tricks, because that's not the solution,'' Holgorsen said. "We've been talking about what we're good at on all three sides of the ball and how we get back to doing those things. We've narrowed down some things.
"We're going to focus on trying to get better at things that we're already good at. We'll build some confidence because of that. We'll rebuild and re-energize as we prepare for our next game.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.