Defense shows improvement vs. OU
MORGANTOWN - There are no doubt things that could have happened to make Saturday worse for West Virginia's football program, but not many.
The Mountaineers lost a game they could have won, made more than a few embarrassing mistakes on special teams and in game management, scored just seven points and turned the ball over four times, had pretty much half the starting defense knocked out of the game at one point or another because of injuries, and found out that their special teams coordinator is about to be embroiled in a major scandal at his former place of employment.
OK, so why, then, did the mood afterward seem almost, well, optimistic? Not happy by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps positive and certainly not gloomy.
Well, a couple of reasons, really. In truth, very little happened to West Virginia on the field during a 16-7 loss to Oklahoma in Norman that isn't correctable.
The errors on special teams were in judgment or execution, not design or talent. The offense showed more weapons at running back and wide receiver, and the quarterbacking stands to improve with experience each week. And as for Joe DeForest's involvement in a brewing scandal at Oklahoma State, well, that's likely to affect DeForest much more than West Virginia.
But the real positive to come out of Saturday night was the performance of West Virginia's defense. Yes, it wore down at times in the 95-degree heat against a ball-control team that had a nine-minute advantage in time of possession. It gave up some big plays in the rushing game and 435 total yards.
But a defense that was one of the laughingstocks of all of college football last year also forced four turnovers and held Oklahoma to just one short-field touchdown and three field goals.
"Oklahoma scored one touchdown and three field goals,'' said nose guard Shaq Rowell, who played opposite OU All-America center Gabe Ikard most of the night. "That was Oklahoma. They've lost what, five games here in 15 years?''
True, the Sooners don't have the same type of explosive attack they've had in the past and played a redshirt freshman quarterback most of the game. But even teams like that abused West Virginia's defense last season.
It wasn't a passive defense, either, the kind that would sit back and react. One of the four turnovers the defense caused was on a hit by Brandon Golson to quarterback Trevor Knight in the backfield and another was an interception that was touched by two Mountaineers, with Karl Joseph finally getting the pick.
It was exactly the kind of defensive performance coordinator Keith Patterson was hoping for, knowing it was impossible to shut down the Sooners but figuring that turnovers would be the difference. He just didn't figure on WVU committing as many as it caused.
"If we forced four turnovers, I thought there's no way we would lose the game,'' Patterson said.
For coach Dana Holgorsen, one of the most encouraging aspects about the defense was not just getting turnovers, but when the Mountaineers got them, often times late in drives when perhaps last year's defense might have just given up.
"They wore us down some, but we kept fighting at the end of drives,'' Holgorsen said. "How many turnovers did we get at the end of [long] drives? They didn't quit playing.''
All four turnovers the Mountaineers caused came after Oklahoma had driven into WVU territory, twice inside the 20. An interception by safety Darwin Cook (who also had a fumble recovery) came in the end zone early in the third quarter just when it looked like things were about to fall apart. Oklahoma had gained a combined 60 yards on back-to-back runs by Brennan Clay and a personal foul penalty for an out-of-bounds tackle by Ishmael Banks put the Sooners at the 5-yard line. Cook intercepted Knight on the next play for a shocking swing of momentum.
But it was neither the interception nor the fumble recovery that was on Cook's mind after the game. He also dropped a potential interception with a lot of open field in front of him.
"We could have had five turnovers and a touchdown,'' Cook said. "I don't even think about the interception I caught. I should have caught the first one and scored and it would have been a different game.''
By the end of the day, the defense had allowed only one touchdown - on just a 32-yard drive after a muffed punt - and field goals on the three longest OU possessions of the game.
Still, the game took its toll on that defense, although how badly has yet to be determined. Linebacker Doug Rigg was taken off on a stretcher late in the game after colliding with a teammate. He returned home with the team late Saturday night, but was knocked unconscious and may have a concussion.
Linebacker Isaiah Bruce spent the second half on the sidelines with crutches and nickel back safety K.J. Dillon left the game and did not return. Rowell also left for a time, as did fellow defensive lineman Eric Kinsey, although they both returned.
The bottom line, Holgorsen said, was that while his team didn't win, there were some positives.
"I'm excited about this football team. We're going to keep getting better,'' he said. "It's not a positive that we didn't win the game. There's nothing positive about it. But I feel good about the guys and I feel good about continuing to get better and better each week."
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.