MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Heading into West Virginia's 2013 football season, here were the two primary questions:Could Dana Holgorsen and the offensive staff mold an entirely new group of skill position players into anything resembling the high-powered offenses for which he was known?And could Keith Patterson, handed arguably the worst defense in school history, succeed in any sort of reclamation project?
Well, as the Mountaineers prepare to conclude a disappointing season that will include no bowl game and a losing record for the first time in a dozen years, the answer to the first is a resounding no.
While WVU's offense occasionally showed a few glimpses of brilliance, they were few and far between. For the first time since Holgorsen became an offensive coordinator (2005) or a head coach, his offense won't rank among the top 15 in the country in scoring and total offense. In fact, it heads into Saturday's game with Iowa State No. 85 in scoring and No. 75 in total offense.The defense? Well, that's a bit more complicated.It is true that West Virginia's defense will finish this season having allowed fewer total yards and points than a season ago. Of course, that bar was pretty low. The scoring average of opponents has dropped from 38.1 points in 13 games last season to 31.6 through 11 this fall. Opponents who gained an average of 474 yards last season are gaining 444 this.In truth, the numbers aren't actually much different, and that's after having faced a majority of Big 12 offenses that were in rebuilding mode, many of them with quarterback issues. Teams aren't torching the Mountaineers through the air at nearly the same pace, but are running for more yards. Then again, foes scored 59 touchdowns in the first 11 games last season and just 42 this year, so there's that.The numbers, though, still don't answer the original question: Have the Mountaineers improved defensively?
Objectively, it's hard not to answer yes. Of course, Patterson is not necessarily objective."I don't think there's any way you can watch video tape and say we're not a better defense,'' Patterson said this week. "Are the numbers that much different? No. But without trying to make an excuse - because it is what it is - but if you look at the players we've lost, you have to understand that it's been hard to develop any consistency.''Indeed, that's the wild card in any assessment of WVU's defense.Twenty-two players were listed on West Virginia's preseason defensive depth chart, two at each position. Of those 22, more than half (12) have missed games due to injury, five of them season-ending injuries. Of the four players listed at cornerback, none are on the two-deep now. Of the eight players listed at the four linebacker spots, all have missed time and only three will be active on Saturday."Look at just our spur-nickel position. Since the Oklahoma game, we haven't gone two weeks in a row and played the same guy there,'' Patterson said. "One game, Georgia State, we didn't even play anyone there. We just did away with the defense because we didn't have anyone. I've never seen anything like that.''
It's always something different, too, it seems. At various points this season, the defensive line has had to be shuffled or the cornerbacks or the safeties. Always the linebacking corps has been a mess, where the only player who has started every game is Brandon Golson. He's a junior college transfer who has been on campus only since June.
Patterson was elevated to the defensive coordinator position late last season. He began changing things for last year's bowl game, then continued in the spring and in fall camp. That's actually pretty good lead time given that most new coordinators don't start until the spring.But given all those injuries and the rapidly changing cast with which he works each week, it's been difficult to develop any kind of defensive continuity. Worst of all, he's seen so many of the supposed leaders of his defense go down one by one."You can sit there and talk about different schemes. Shoot, you could have stayed with the 3-3-5 for the last three years,'' Patterson said. "But when you have change in leadership at those key positions, it's going to be different. It's different in how you prepare, how you practice, how coaches teach. Things are just going to be different.''A year ago, West Virginia's defense seldom even slowed teams down until the schedule softened with Iowa State and Kansas at the end of the season. The other seven Big 12 opponents averaged 51 points against WVU over seven straight games.This year, only Baylor flat embarrassed the defense that way, as the Bears did to a lot of other teams. Almost every week, it seems, the defense kept West Virginia in games while waiting for the offense to do something. If the offense didn't - Oklahoma State and TCU were the exceptions - the defense eventually cracked, usually because of a failure to hold on key third-down plays."Could we be a little bit less aggressive [on third downs]? I don't know,'' Patterson said. "But it had gotten us to that point.''
Texas could have blown West Virginia out almost before the game began because of offensive turnovers, but the defense bailed it out. The defense held Oklahoma to one touchdown (set up by a muffed punt) and could have been playing with a lead had the offense not fumbled inside the OU 20 while driving for a go-ahead score.Oklahoma State has lost one game this season, at West Virginia, when the Mountaineers held the Cowboys 20 points below their scoring average."I believe in what we do,'' Patterson said. "Otherwise, how can you sit there for 12 series and basically put your foot on Texas' throat, and then boom, boom, boom and you're sitting there saying, 'What just happened?' ''After Saturday, Patterson can hit the reset button. He can spend an offseason getting guys healthy and recruiting more who are actually better fits for the system. And he can ignore statistics that don't tell the whole story."You can't sit there and look at the yards. You have to look at the whole body of evidence,'' Patterson said. "Look at what we did against Oklahoma State, against Texas for most of the game, against Texas Tech. We were so close to being a good defense. That's probably the most disappointing thing.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.