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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s red zone defense is a big reason why the team is off to a 2-1 start for the 2021 football season.

If not for three red zone stops against Virginia Tech this past Saturday, including the most critical of them in the final minute with WVU clinging to a six-point lead, the Mountaineers would likely have lost to the Hokies rather than holding on for a 27-21 victory.

During the battle for the Black Diamond Trophy, Tech’s offense drove inside West Virginia’s 20-yard line four times but came away with a total of just seven points, as three of those red zone trips were turned away — once on a missed field goal and twice on downs. VT also drove to the WVU 25-yard line in the first quarter, but lost the ball there after the Mountaineers made a fourth-down stop.

“It’s something we work on a lot in practice. Coach (Neal) Brown and Coach (Jordan) Lesley really harp on being good in the red zone,” explained West Virginia junior middle linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo. “We were a good defense last year, but we weren’t the best in the red zone. We’ve really focused on that this year. We’ve done red zone drills literally every single day since our first spring practice. That’s something we’ve really harped on.”

In 2020, the Mountaineer defense was the best in the Big 12 in points allowed, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed, but it was sixth in red zone defense. Of the 20 trips into the red zone that WVU’s opponents made last season, they scored 17 times (85% rate), with 12 of those being touchdowns (60%).

Through the first three games of 2021, West Virginia leads not only the Big 12 but all of the FBS in red zone defense. Its opponents have driven into the red zone 11 times, but they have scored just four times (36%) with only two of those being touchdowns (18%).

“The red zone defense was not a strength of ours in ’19,” noted Brown, whose first WVU squad was 114th in the FBS in red zone defense, allowing 42 scores (89%) and 30 TDs (64%) on its opponents' 47 red zone opportunities. “We were good on it at Troy, and we’ve really emphasized it here from a practice standpoint. We do some kind of red zone work, good on good, every single day we practice in pads. We’ve emphasized it a lot.”

Obviously, there is a great deal of season left for the Mountaineers, but through three games, limiting red zone scores has been a huge strength.

“The biggest thing is awareness of where you are,” explained Lesley when asked what makes a good red zone defense. “That (goal) line is what gets you beat. I don’t worry a lot about stats, like yards per game, whatever. When the ball does not cross that line, you have a chance. Red zone defense, scoring defense, however you look at it, is one of the biggest stats to me. It’s one of my top three – rushing defense, turnover margin and scoring defense. If I look at a defense on paper, those are the things that stick out to me.

“That’s one of the big positives with this group,” Lesley added. “We’ve had some negative things happen that we have to fix, obviously, but they haven’t blinked. Especially the one at the end of the game Saturday, they didn’t blink.

“I think it comes back to preaching about that line, the goal line, as long as the ball doesn’t get to there, we’re OK,” WVU’s defensive coordinator concluded.

As good as West Virginia’s defense has been at getting red zone stops, it’s not been successful so far this season in creating turnovers.

Through their first three games of ’21, the Mountaineers have just one takeaway — a fumble recovery in their 66-0 blowout of LIU.

WVU is -6 on the season in turnover margin, having given the ball away seven times (four fumbles and three interceptions) but gotten it back just once. It is 120th in turnovers gained and tied for 127th in turnover margin out of the 130 FBS teams.

“It was one of our strengths last year,” noted Brown, whose team averaged +0.2 in the turnover margin category in 2020. “Part of the problem this year is we have to do a better job of recovering fumbles. We’ve had five of them on the ground this year, but we’re not recovering many of them. We did recover one of them Saturday, but it was fourth down, so I don’t know if it even showed up as one (officially it didn’t count). There is an art to it. We’re falling right on top of the ball. The ball is oblong, so if you fall on top of it, it’s probably going to squirt out. You’ve got to go in from the side and use your hands.

“We also have to do a better job in the secondary of getting our eyes back on some downfield throws. That will help (in coming up with interceptions),” added West Virginia’s head coach. “We talked about it in our team meeting yesterday, and we’re going to do some things in practice to hopefully improve that.”

Improving in that area this week at Oklahoma (7:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC) could be difficult, as the Sooners have lost only two turnovers in their first three games of the season.

No matter who the opponent is, though, winning the turnover battle is often the difference between victory and defeat.

“We have to do a better job,” admitted Lesley when it comes to creating turnovers. WVU’s defense came away with 11 interceptions and two fumble recoveries last season. “We have to do a better job of getting our hands up at the line of scrimmage to affect throws, do a better job of getting our hands on the football in the run game, do a better job of getting the ball out in gang tackling situations. It’s just something we haven’t done a good job of this season. That’s as simple as it is. We have to do better.”

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — Nebraska stayed in the game against Oklahoma last week by limiting the Sooners’ big plays, and that could be West Virginia’s best chance at pulling an upset Saturday. But does that match the Mountaineers’ defensive philosophy?

First, the OU stumbling block — or at least the item perceived to be so. OU has only three runs of 30 yards or more this year, and only two such pass plays. Overall, that’s not bad at all, but it’s a little below the expectations — and history — of a program that routinely tears yardage off in chunks, not nibbles. That has caused some angst and consternation among the Crimson and Cream faithful.

Nebraska, for example was able to limit OU to just one run and two pass completions of more than 20 yards, forcing it to string together longer drives without mistakes in order to put points on the board. All three of OU’s scoring drives were 10 plays or more.

The question is can West Virginia, with its attacking, somewhat risk-taking defense, force the same sort of game? WVU, as we examine in a moment, doesn’t sit back on defense and attempts to get into the backfield with its defensive front to create chaos. The problem is, when those tactics fall short, open or one-on-one chances for very talented offensive players result, and OU is better suited than any other Mountaineer opponent to take advantage of them.

That doesn’t mean that the visitors can simply switch tactics and play it safe all of the time, with cloud or umbrella coverages and containment rushing schemes. WVU will, though, have to figure out how to backstop its aggressive play to limit some of those big play chances, as it’s simply not built to win a shootout right now.

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Oklahoma fans are actually upset about sub-par play from their quarterback and supposed deficiencies in the offense. Apparently a run of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks does a lot to skew perspective. This supposedly flawed QB — Spencer Rattler — leads the Big 12 in total offense, total touchdowns, passing touchdowns and completions, and is second in completion percentage (74.7%). Granted, some of those numbers were rolled up against Western Carolina, but any sort of complaining or panic needs to be tempered.

It’s true that Rattler is not going downfield in the passing game as much this year as in the past, but he was still 24-34 for 214 yards and zero interceptions against the Huskers. That’s a winning performance in most college games, and that includes the Big 12, which has seen a rise in defensive performance this season.

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Oklahoma is tied for second nationally this season with its seven forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. The Sooners had three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in the entire 2020 campaign.

While West Virginia isn’t matching those turnover numbers, it is being quite disruptive on defense. The Mountaineers have 31 tackles behind the line of scrimmage through three games, ranking them No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 4 nationally. More than 15% of WVU’s stops have resulted in lost yardage.

Oklahoma is likely happy to see Mountaineers, and not Wildcats, entering its stadium for its conference opener. OU has won 11 of its last 13 Big 12 openers, and both of those losses have been dealt by Kansas State, which won 24-19 in 2012 and 38-35 in 2020.

WVU has been OU’s league-opening foe three times in nine years in the league, with all of those running between 2013 and 2015. The Mountaineers dropped road decisions of 16-7 in 2013 and 44-21 two years later, and were outscored 45-33 at home in Morgantown in 2014.

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COVID AND COLLATERAL NOTES: Each week, we’ll provide notes and tips on health precautions, travel advisories and more for the upcoming game in this space.

Last year’s trip to the Sooner state for the OSU game revealed a significant number of people defying a mandatory mask order, and this year, not much different is expected. OU does say that masks are required on buses and shuttles, but is careful to lay the onus for that on the U.S. Department of Transportation. OU also “strongly encourages” the wearing of masks inside University buildings, and notes that masking “may be required in certain areas of the stadium."

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There have been a couple of hints from West Virginia’s coaching staff that the role for Garrett Greene might be expanding. For a percentage of Mountaineer fans, that can’t come soon enough, but the counter, as always, is in not overwhelming a young quarterback.

“I think you will see growth (in the package of plays) for him,” offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said of the next steps for West Virginia’s backup quarterback. “It changes who we are and allows us to be different in a way we need to be at that position. I think it complements us very well in using the two quarterbacks. It is something we have to grow on.”

While Greene has had a few snaps here and there, the next step would seem to be giving him a series at a time, rather than a situational snap here or there. That would require, of course, allowing him to throw the ball, and not just on swing or screen passes.

One other item to consider — this Saturday’s game will be, by far, the most hostile of the season to date. West Virginia fans were a significant presence in the opener at Maryland, and the Terp crowd wasn’t intimidating at all. By sheer numbers, OU will be a much tougher environment. Is that the time and place to increase Greene’s role? If it is, WVU fans should get a good idea of how he can handle adverse conditions.

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STEPHEN C. DEAN, age 72 of Chesapeake, passed away surrounded by his loved ones on September 19, 2021.