Mountaineer defense steps up
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Dana Holgorsen said after West Virginia's surprising 30-21 win over No. 11 Oklahoma State Saturday that he was thrilled with a defense that held the Cowboys to just 21 points.
"They held a team to 21 points that hasn't been held to that for quite some time,'' the WVU coach said.
Well, that's not exactly true. Mississippi State did it in the season opener, but lost 21-3. Kansas actually did it last year, but lost 20-14.
Those were anomalies, though. In fact, since the 2002 season - 11 years and counting - Oklahoma State has been held to 21 points or less just 11 times. It's happened only three times since the 2005 season.
And yet West Virginia's defense did it Saturday. That's the West Virginia defense that was the laughingstock of college football a year ago, the reason a team with the best offense in school history couldn't win games.
Well, actually it's not that defense. And that's the point.
"I don't want to call them great yet,'' Holgorsen said. "But they've improved.''
Indeed, they have improved by leaps and bounds. And not only since last season, but since last week.
Earlier this week Holgorsen talked about the need for WVU's defense to do more than just stop opponents. That wasn't good enough, especially when paired with an offense that had struggled to score.
No, what the Mountaineers had to do was help the offense along. Score points. Set them up. Do something proactive.
And so Saturday the West Virginia defense did just that.
Yes, it gave up 433 yards. Oklahoma State averaged 5 yards per play.
But that defense came up big when it mattered most. Ishmael Banks intercepted a pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown. Darwin Cook picked off another to essentially seal the game when OSU still had a chance to drive for the winning TD and extra point. The defense forced 10 punts and three turnovers.
And the offense had to drive an average of just 56.5 yards for its two touchdowns and 20.7 yards for its three field goals. The defense scored the other touchdown itself on Banks' return.
"We talked about it all week,'' Holgorsen said. "If they wanted to go from good to great, they have to make bigger plays.''
And so they did. In addition to the two interceptions, Brandon Golson forced a fumble that Isaiah Bruce recovered. It came a play after quarterback J.W. Walsh had hit Josh Stewart on a 17-yard pass to get the Cowboys going. Six times, OSU had the ball down by just 24-21. Five of those possessions ended with punts after the Cowboys gained 0, 17, 0, 24 and minus-3 yards on the possessions.
But the sixth was the critical one. Oklahoma State drove to the West Virginia 13 early in the fourth quarter, three plays produced just 6 yards and on third down Walsh threw incomplete into the end zone.
But Banks was flagged for a facemask call, giving the Cowboys first-and-goal at the 3. When Jeremy Smith ran to the 1 on first down, it seemed a foregone conclusion OSU would take the lead.
But on second down, Walsh threw a fade into the end zone that was incomplete. On third down, Dontrill Hyman got to Smith in the backfield, dropped him for a 5-yard loss and nearly got the ball (the play was reviewed and Smith's knee was down, barely). And then on fourth down, kicking from the right hash at close range, Ben Grogan's chip-shot field goal hit the upright and bounced back.
West Virginia had dodged a bullet and kept the lead. Thanks in great part to its defense.
"I think it just shows you the character of our players,'' defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "They spilled their guts out.''
But then Thompson made a fair catch on a punt inside his own 5 and returned two others for negative yards. Sims ran back a kickoff and only made it to the 15. And Josh Lambert missed two field goals.
And all of that happened in just the third quarter.
"We have issues that we need to get sorted out,'' said Holgorsen.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.