Baylor will test WVU's improved defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The test that West Virginia's defense faces Saturday from the offense of No. 17 Baylor is one the Mountaineers would have flunked a year ago.
In fact, it's one they did flunk.
Sure, WVU managed to win, but no 70-63 football victory has ever been credited to great defense. The Mountaineers gave up 700 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns. Get this: West Virginia had a receiver, Stedman Bailey, who had 13 catches for 303 yards and he wasn't even the most productive pass-catcher on the field. That's because WVU's own notoriously inept pass defense allowed Terrance Williams 17 catches for 314 yards.
Don't look now, but Baylor's offense has improved since last season. The Bears are, in round figures, averaging 751 yards and 70 points.
West Virginia's defense, though, is no longer inept. In fact, through the first five games of the season, a defense that was routinely abused last season has yet to be even mildly embarrassed this season. Oklahoma scored but 16 points and Oklahoma State only 21. Maryland got 37, but largely because the WVU offense handed out scoring opportunities.
The West Virginia defense is playing with confidence and energy and is succeeding.
"Yeah, that's obviously true,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "But we'll see how they do this week playing the best offense in college football in Baylor."
Indeed, that's another kind of test.
West Virginia (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) faces Baylor (3-0, 0-0) Saturday night in Waco, Texas. The 8 p.m. (ET) game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.
That's where the Mountaineers will be tested perhaps in a way they won't be tested again this season. Perhaps no offense ever has had some of the off-the-charts numbers Baylor's posting this season. In additions to those averages of 751.3 yards and 69.7 points per game, consider:
What chance does a defense have if it can't even get to third down? That's the challenge that faces West Virginia. It's a challenge last year's defense would have had no chance of answering. This year? Well, they have as good a chance as most anyone else.
What a difference a year makes.
"Yeah, it does. But we're not playing 10 true freshmen now,'' Holgorsen said. "That's probably the biggest difference.''
Well, West Virginia wasn't actually playing 10 true freshmen on defense a year ago, either. It was "just'' seven. Four others were redshirt freshmen. Still, that's 11 defensive players who had never before played in a college game.
It's more than just experience, though. Keith Patterson took over as the defensive coordinator at the end of the regular season in 2012 and so now has been on the job 10 months, through bowl game prep, spring practice, fall camp and five games of the season. The difference he's made is noticeable.
"Coach Patterson's done a great job of corralling these guys and teaching them the game,'' Holgorsen said.
"Last year we had a version of his 3-4 defense and then when he took over before the bowl game he started installing his and his only version of the 3-4 defense,'' Holgorsen said. "Having one voice is obviously the right thing, especially his voice.
"He's doing a fantastic job of teaching them the game the way he knows how to teach it. And then you couple that with [having] experienced guys.''
Indeed, the experience has shown. Safeties Darwin Cook and Karl Joseph have provided a tremendous boost all around, while corners Ishmael Banks, Travis Bell and true freshman Daryl Worley have amped up the pass coverage. The linebackers have been hit with injuries, but there was enough depth there to begin with. And the defensive line has been kept fresh by rotating at least six players in the three front spots.
"We're getting great senior leadership with Darwin Cook and Shaq Rowell and Will Clarke. And then we've got guys that are coming on,'' Holgorsen said. "Our corners aren't true freshmen like they were last year. Travis Bell's an experienced guy that's really emerged at corner. Icky Banks is an experienced guy that's really emerged at corner. And then those 10 true freshmen are not true freshmen anymore.''
Then throw in junior college guys with more experience like Dontrill Hyman and Brandon Golson.
"It's a combination of a lot of things,'' Holgorsen said.
There's no question, though, that the competition this year has been different. West Virginia hasn't faced a series of experienced quarterbacks running explosive offenses like last season, and there aren't many down the road, either. Even the best offenses WVU will still face generally have new quarterbacks or unsettled situations at the position.
Baylor has a new quarterback, too, in Bryce Petty, but it hasn't seemed to matter yet.
"Last year there were so many experienced offenses that we faced, this Baylor team being one of them,'' Holgorsen said. "You've got to be willing to step up and play at the highest level possible each and every week. And that's one thing that our defense has bought into and they're doing a good job of that.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.