MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Make no mistake about it. What Keith Patterson and his West Virginia defense suffered through at Baylor a few weeks ago was tantamount to a cold-blooded assassination.A group that a year ago made weekly eviscerations of its pride the norm was battered and beaten to epic proportions. Seventy-three points and 864 yards will do that.Why, then, were the Mountaineers feeling seemingly worse late Saturday afternoon? Sure, Texas Tech rang up some big numbers - 37 points and 573 yards. The Red Raiders scored on seven of their 12 legitimate possessions. But compared to Baylor it was almost a rousing success.The Bears scored on 10 of their first 11 possessions before losing interest, and nine were touchdowns. Texas Tech was forced into two turnovers, three punts and had to settle for three field goals.Ah, progress.But the difference wasn't so much statistical as it was competitive. That's what made the 37-27 loss so grating."Sometimes,'' Patterson said, "it's the closer losses that are harder to take.''This was certainly a much closer loss, although the very fact that we're now grading the relativity of losses does not bode well."There were probably four third downs where, if we get off the field, the game is different,'' Patterson said. "Sometimes that's all it takes. Momentum changes and the game plays out differently. That's where we were.''
But if measuring the relative angst of losses does not bode well for a West Virginia team that is now under .500 (3-4) for the first time since a 1-2 start in 2008 - and for the first time this deep in a season since 2003 - perhaps this does:Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are all in the rear-view mirror.If you're a defensive coordinator, you have to pretty much breathe a sigh of relief at this point, right? Go ahead and take a look at the Big 12 statistics. Those are four of the top five teams in the league in total offense. The last two opponents, Baylor and Tech, are light years ahead of everyone else in the league in total offense and passing. Baylor is first in the country in total offense. Tech is second in passing.They all are someone else's problem now, right Keith?"Yeah, that's one way to look at it,'' Patterson said. "I hadn't thought of it like that.'
Whether Patterson has considered it or not - let's face it, he's got more to worry about than offensive rankings - the Texas Tech game marked a line that West Virginia's defense is now beyond. Not only were the Mountaineers' first four Big 12 opponents the four Top 25 teams the league has, they were the best offenses. Of the five remaining opponents, only the Texas offense is statistically in the top half of the league in most significant measurements.
Kansas State, TCU, Kansas and Iowa State are not what anyone would consider explosive, or at least they haven't been to date."Yeah, but now you just have different kind of challenges,'' Patterson said.Truth be told, West Virginia actually met some of those challenges in the first four games against those top-tier offenses. It's easy to forget given the last two games, but WVU's defense handled Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.Shoot, it's easy for the Mountaineer defenders themselves to forget."That Baylor game did so much to our psyche,'' Patterson said. "We didn't take the field [against Texas Tech] with the confidence that we'd taken it the first six. We didn't play with that confidence. We played like, 'Man, I hope we can get off the field. I hope we can cover.' At least that's what it seemed like and felt like to me. We kind of lost our swagger.''The Texas Tech game probably didn't help them get any of it back, but as Patterson correctly points out it was still a huge improvement. The only real downfall was that when it counted the most - on those crucial third downs in the fourth quarter - it just wasn't there.
"We put so much emphasis on it that I sound like a broken record, but it's the key to how we play defense,'' Patterson said. "Three-and-outs, tackles for loss, trying to impact the quarterback and getting off the field on third down. And the last two games we haven't gotten off the field."But let me just tell you, Texas Tech and Baylor had a lot to do with that - who you're covering. More power to them. You've got to give them credit.''There is, of course, no guarantee that West Virginia's defense won't make some of the remaining offenses, heretofore vanilla, look like world-beaters. The Mountaineers do have that history.But at least the rest of the way they would seem to have a fighting chance, which is what Patterson hopes his group will do - fight."And these kids will,'' Patterson said. "There's still a lot of meat left on the bone.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.