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.”