MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — If one were to sit down and do an analysis of the West Virginia football situation as it readies itself to go on the road to face a 4-1 Baylor team this Saturday, he would surmise that the strength of the Mountaineers lies with its defense.
That is where the numbers seem to lead you, but you might reach a different conclusion if you look at what has transpired this season to date through the eyes of defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. This became apparent on Tuesday afternoon when he was asked what he looks at as the most important factors in the moments after a game has ended.
"Start fast and finish," he said. "If you want to put a third one on there, it's make routine plays in key situations."
The problem is WVU's disappointing 2-3 start can be translated into its failures in those three areas.
Think back to their three losses to Power 5 opponents, each a loss that was difficult to swallow, each a loss in which they gave up a late score to beat them after starting slowly and rallying to put themselves to be in a position to win.
It ended up being three losses by a total of 12 points.
In the Maryland game, the Mountaineers fell behind 17-7 in the first half, rallied to take the lead, then eventually gave up a fourth-quarter TD pass that sealed their fate.
In the Oklahoma game, WVU took the opening kickoff, used up nearly 0 minutes driving to score, then allowed the Sooners on their first possession to go down the field and score. WVU eventually built a three-point cushion before giving up a tying field goal and then a drive for the winning kick as time expired.
In the Texas Tech game, WVU was dreadful both offensively and defensively while falling behind 17-0 at the half, came back to tie the game with 4:34 left only to give up a long pass and drive for the winning field goal with 18 seconds to play.
Each was exactly the scenario that Lesley said was most important to avoid.
"Oklahoma and Texas Tech, same scenario, two different drives," Lesley said, referring to the losses in each of the past two weeks. "I'll give Oklahoma credit. They came out and were really, really patient, which they really weren't in the middle of the game until they found out what we were doing to them.
"They gave us a couple of things on the last drive that we really had to adjust to on the fly. We committed a couple of errors, like the second-down offsides," he said. "That was a huge one. That was a self-inflicted gut shot. That led to a made third down that got them into field-goal range.
"That's not an excuse. That's just how that one played out."
Texas Tech was different on the last drive.
"Saturday, we get a decent stop on first down, then Texas Tech takes a shot. They throw a 50-50 ball. Either team can catch it (as it was underthrown), that's why they call it a 50-50 ball but we were on the wrong side of the 50," Lesley said.
The catch gave the Red Raiders good field position.
"They were right at field goal range," he said. "Then we miss a check on the next play, a run, and we can't stop the clock and they kick the winning field goal."
The players know what happened. Dante Stills, for example, had one of his best games, but on the key pass, he made a minor mistake in technique that cost dearly. Stills put a hard rush on Henry Colombi, but came up inches short of getting the sack.
"We were really close. It's not a negative, it's a simple little coaching point. I'll tell you how small the margin for error is. We had a twist on the D-line set up for Dante Stills. If Dante runs with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and sees the lane, he probably gets home and affects the throw.
"He's turned a little too much, it carries him two steps outside and he ends up just a little from it. You look at the tape, and if you had played like you should have back in the first quarter nobody ever finds that half a foot. We were right there even though max protected, running just a three-man route.
"It would be different story if I blitzed nine, but I can't do that. We were close, but that's football."
"We aren't supposed to rush past the quarterback's shoulder. When you do that, he can escape," Stills said.
He did and a loss grew out of it.
"It hurts," Stills said. "I hate losing. I just don't like it. We got to bounce back and work. We can't do anything about it now."
It came out of a slow start in the game and a small mistake, the kind that is completely overlooked if you had given yourself a cushion early.
It comes, he says, with maturity.
"You look at maturity, it's understanding every single play in a close game can make the difference so don't waste them. That's what we have to understand because we don't have that margin for error right now," Lesley said.