MORGANTOWN — It’s no secret.
All that follow WVU’s football team know.
The Mountaineer coaches know.
Surely, the TCU coaches know.
West Virginia’s chances in its Top 25 showdown at TCU on Saturday are directly tied to the performance of the Mountaineer defensive line.
It’s as apparent as the nose on Cate Blanchett’s face.
If that WVU front is as porous as it’s been so far, the Horned Frogs will be hopping happy Saturday night.
“We’re a work in progress, there’s no question,” said the position’s coach at WVU, Bruce Tall.
Give Tall credit for being candid. The Mountaineers are ranked No. 23 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls, but own yet another ranking of No. 114.
That’s where the Mountaineers stand in the nation after four games – three of which were against East Carolina, Delaware State and Kansas — against the run.
In team passing efficiency defense, West Virginia is No. 51. That’s not great, but at least it’s in the upper half of FBS teams. But by allowing 226 rushing yards a game, WVU’s total defense number is dragged down to No. 107. The average of 451 yards allowed a game is just 22 spots above bottom-feeder ECU (614.8).
In sum, if you’re grading the WVU defensive line, it would be, well, a “D” line. The question is, can it or has it been fixed over the off-week in preparation for Saturday’s game?
“We’d like to be farther along than we are, but I feel real good about how we’ve prepared for this game,” Tall said. “It’s the same guys playing the same positions. We’re a work in progress. We just have to get better at what we’re doing.”
Tall was asked how the work in progress can progress to a winning level.
“It’s being better on technique,” said the coach. “There’s no question. It’s understanding where I need to fit in on blocks. It’s being very disruptive.
“There’s other ways of doing it, by moving guys and slanting and angling. But you still have to be able to play at that point of attack. Our guys know that.”
Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen defended his team’s three-man front.
“It ain’t scheme, because we’ve been pretty good against the run the past two years, so you don’t see me sweating about it,” Holgorsen said. “We have to do a better job up front of holding gaps. We have depth. We need guys to step up and be real dudes. I think [Lamonte] McDougle took a step in the right direction. We need other guys to step up and play Big 12 football. Holding gaps. Getting off blocks. Being tacklers.”
“We just have to play more guys,” chimed in WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “Lamonte McDougle played really well and will get rewarded by playing a lot more. We just need guys to step up. It was a concern coming into the season and four games in it’s still a concern. We need to get it fixed.”
McDougle, by the way, is a 5-foot-10, 295-pound true freshman from Pompano Beach, Florida.
“He’s a competitive kid,” Gibson said. “He loves to play football. We knew that when we recruited him. He has a little bit of an attitude, mean streak about him. Plus his dad [Stockar] was a first-round [NFL] draft pick. So it’s in his bloodline.”
While that’s well and good, though, WVU needs more than the play of a true freshman.
“It’s not only D-line, it’s all over the board,” Gibson said. “We need to do a better job of coaching.”
The DC pointed to the play of linebacker Al Rasheed-Benton, who is leading the second level of WVU’s run defense.
“If we don’t have Al, who knows how many yards Kansas rushes for?” Gibson said. “He made every tackle. It’s disheartening at times to watch the film. You think, ‘Wow, how did we get to this point?’”
Kansas runner Khalil Herbert, you may know, entered the WVU game averaging 49 yards and put 291 on the Mountaineers, the most ever against a West Virginia team.
“We need to tackle,” Gibson said. “If you look [at the Kansas game] there were two runs that went for over 120 yards. We missed filling a gap. And then we had about eight guys missing tackles. That’s the biggest problem right now with run defense.”
Gibson said yes, certainly, the issue was a point of emphasis during the off-week.
“We tackled defensively last week two days,” he said. “We did live drills. We worked a bunch on it. Guys need to play with better effort and wrap up. Tackling is all about want-to. It looked like our guys didn’t want to.”
The good news for WVU fans?
“We’ve been real crisp,” Tall said of recent practices. “We’ve had some good inside periods with the offense. We’re ready to roll. It’s time to play again for our guys. There’s no question it’s been disappointing and we want to prove what we can do.”
Yet there’s not-so-good news for the Mountaineers.
“TCU’s offensive line is one of the best we’ll see,” Tall said. “They’re very experienced and do a really nice job. Well-coached. They’re solid as they can be. They’re going to make us work. It’s a great time to have a great challenge though. We know we have to step up.”
And, this week, perhaps, be real dudes.