MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There were many times last season when West Virginia’s defense was outplayed and outmanned. The Mountaineers lost nine starting or regular defenders to season-ending injuries in 2013 and the vacancies and the process of filling them contributed to a group that ranked No. 99 out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense (33.3 points per game) and No. 101 in total defense (455 yards per game).
Yet there were times WVU was outsmarted, too.
Opponents in the Big 12, where WVU allowed more than 510 yards per game and 6.2 yards per play, found the Mountaineers to be predictable on occasion. Kenny Williams, Texas Tech’s leading rusher last season who will play linebacker this season, remembered a third-and-1 play from the game at Mountaineer Filed to make this point.
“I would say at times they were,” he said. “From watching the film, we knew what they’d do in certain situations and that was what we operated off of.”
That’s football. Across the length of a season, offenses and defenses establish tendencies and opponents find and feast upon them. The winning teams do the best job manipulating and protecting those trends.
The Red Raiders used a break between the first and second quarters to go over a play they trusted would work when play resumed at their 35-yard line.
“We knew they’d line up in a heavy package and they’d probably crash down and give us an option for a dump pass,” Williams said.
Sure enough, the Mountaineers played a short-yardage defense, crowded the line of scrimmage and seemingly expected a run.
“We faked a dive,” Williams said. “I came out of the backfield for a dump pass and it went for 40-some yards. As soon as we saw they lined up in the heavy package, we knew they’d crash down and it’d be open.”
It was 41-yard gain and led to a field goal and a 13-0 lead. That was one of 39 passing plays WVU allowed to cover at least 25 yards in conference play. The Mountaineers gave up 18 running plays covering at least 20 yards against Big 12 teams.
Needless to say, the Mountaineers had problems playing defense in the Big 12 last season. They allowed 20.3 points per game in non-conference play — and lost one of those games 37-0 — but allowed 37.7 points in nine conference games. WVU players and coaches could point at injuries, inexperience and rapidly deteriorating confidence.
But that was last year. This year, players and coaches doubt they’ll have as many health issues. They brag about returning starters and savvy backups. The combination has restored the collective confidence back to where it was after spearheading an upset win against then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, only to have that obliterated a week later at Baylor.
How the Mountaineers fix the more technical aspects is yet unknown, and not merely because they are still 12 days away from opening in the Georgia Dome against Alabama, which is ranked No. 2 in the preseason Associated Press poll. One day one coach says they’re throwing a lot at the players. The next day a different coach says they’re keeping it simple, focusing first on the base before ever adding anything exotic. Some players say things are new with a fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. Other players say what’s new is actually old and there is strength from familiarity.
What is certain is the Mountaineers have plenty to correct. A collection of Big 12 opponents helped explain what went wrong in 2013.
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WVU’S DEFENSE WAS fertile ground for big plays and big performances, but not nearly as often on the ground as through the air. The Mountaineers allowed only three 100-yard rushers in nine conference games. Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk and Shock Linwood both topped 100 in the same game and Kansas’ James Sims had 211 in a win.
The wealth of the damage done to WVU’s defensive statistics, rankings and psyche came with the pass, and that’ll happen in the Big 12. Five quarterbacks passed for at least 322 yards — and one had 462. Four had at least three touchdowns. Four completed at least 25 passes. Twelve receivers caught at least seven passes in a game and seven had at least 100 yards. Three had multiple touchdown receptions.
Opponents knew better than to expect anything less.
“I don’t want to call them out,” said Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters, who was 10-for-13 for 198 yards and two touchdowns against WVU, “but certain coverages, we thought, ‘Hey, this play will work pretty well. We like this play. They’ll run this play and we can take advantage of it.’ Once we got it in a game, we rolled with it.”
Again, though, that’s football. That’s why coaches pick apart film and spend long days sharing discoveries and building game plans. The problem for WVU was its weaknesses were apparently easy to spot, but hard to hide.
“When they went Cover 2, it worked a lot for us,” Oklahoma State receiver Jhajuan Seales said. “We saw their Cover 2 was always open in the middle of field.”
Quarterback J.W. Walsh passed for 322 yards and three touchdowns against WVU and the Cowboys had success in the middle with screens and short and longer throws into the middle.
The Cover 2 defense WVU played quite a bit last season is a common tactic where the two safeties play the deepest part of the secondary and each take half of the field. The cornerbacks and linebackers underneath play man-to-man or zone defense to protect their area.
“I’d say we were faster than them in those areas,” said TCU receiver David Porter, who caught eight passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns against WVU.
The Mountaineers admit they had trouble with it, so much so that they don’t figure to play it nearly as much this season.
“Any time you play a two-high shell look, you can expose your safeties some,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “There are going to be some openings and you have to have the guys who can do a great job covering those up. You really need to be able to do both — a single-high safety look where you close down the middle and then pick your times to leave the middle open. You just have to game plan it right and scout them and figure out their tendencies.”
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TIME AND SPACE were WVU’s enemies, too. A number of opponents said they knew an up-tempo offense would confuse the Mountaineers, especially if the offense jumped into it unexpectedly. WVU was often out of position and out of sorts because of who was on the field. It was a challenge to be organized between plays.
Gibson didn’t need opponents to tell him that.
“That’s very accurate,” he said. “You watch the film and there were a lot of times kids were watching the sidelines trying to get a call and they were snapping the ball.”
Returning players and their experience should help that, but WVU could stand to be quicker and more athletic in spots and to do a better job in space — and that may be the case in 2014 with linebackers like Wes Tonkery, Edward Muldrow and Al-Rasheed Benton, players who didn’t play much (Tonkery) or at all (Muldrow and Benton) in 2013. Defenses could take advantage of WVU and the loss to Baylor damaged the defense’s confidence and inflated the opposition’s self-esteem.
“We kind of felt if we spread them out that that really left them open, it left some holes out there, like how Baylor runs its offense and really spreads you out,” Porter said. “When we did that, it got to them and we had some success. That was one thing we really tried to do.”
The Horned Frogs threw 58 passes that day — their most since 2001 — Trevone Boykin, a quarterback turned into a receiver, caught 11. Early on, TCU came to believe WVU’s defenders fixed stares on the backfield. The counter was a tricky play that worked again and again.
The quarterback would put the ball in the belly of a running back. If a linebacker or safety jumped up to play the run, the quarterback threw a pass to a receiver in the vacated space. If the defender stayed put to protect against the pass, the quarterback handed off the ball. WVU’s response was to scrap its defense and blitz, which put more pressure on the secondary. When TCU needed it, it rallied with back-to-back scoring drives to erase a 10-point deficit at the end of the fourth quarter and force overtime.
“We knew they were a good defense, but they had their mistakes,” Porter said. “We just focused on us and what we thought we could do to go out there and get a win, even though we didn’t.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blog.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.