While the West Virginia University football team’s offense will try to get back on track this weekend, the Mountaineer defense will be aiming to stay there.
Defensively, WVU was brilliant for the most part in its 27-21 double-overtime win over Baylor on Oct. 3, clamping down on the Bears to the tune of 27 rushing yards on 33 attempts, two interceptions and a 4-for-16 success rate on third downs.
While the performance was admirable, all involved know that now is no time to rest on laurels.
On film, WVU head coach Neal Brown and co-defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley saw an expected number of mistakes and missed assignments, agreeing that those shortcomings were overcome by a sheer level of effort that proved to be the difference in the game. But now, that level is the expectation and the unit must live up it.
“That’s what they have to choose to be,” Lesley said. “We talk about it enough going back to last year, ‘Do you want to be a flash or is this who you want to be?’ You have to make that decision and it’s ultimately going to come back to the coaching staff. You have to demand that.
“You have to do everything you do that way,” he added. “You don’t just show up on Saturday and then we play hard. That’s not the way it works. Practice, meetings, whatever, that has to be your approach to what you do. And if that becomes who you are, then that’s what our hope is, that we’re able to take that game and this is just how we should play football. It’s nothing special, it’s just who we want to be.”
Awaiting the Mountaineers is a winless Kansas team (0-3 overall, 0-2 Big 12 Conference) that will come calling at noon on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown. The game will be televised on Fox.
Despite its early struggles, the Jayhawks aren’t without weapons. Junior running back Pooka Williams is as accomplished as they come as the 2018 Big 12 Offensive Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-conference pick both last year and this preseason.
Junior Miles Kendrick will make his first start at quarterback for Kansas and presents a dual-threat weapon that could prove tough to contain. Kendrick has seen action this year as injuries have riddled KU signal callers and leads the Jayhawks in completions (26), attempts (43), passing yards (246) and touchdowns (two).
After a bye week following an emotional, white-knuckle defensive effort, can WVU match that effort, and will those kinds of performances indeed become the defensive norm for the Mountaineers?
“Coach Lesley harps on remaining focused and don’t let a good game turn into a bad game, meaning our good game with Baylor don’t let this upcoming game be a bad game,” WVU junior defensive lineman Dante Stills said. “He harps on that and makes sure we’re watching film and taking notes and being very focused on our technique.”
WVU’s defensive front came up big against Baylor, and linebackers Tony Fields (10 tackles, two for loss, one sack, one pass breakup) and Josh Chandler-Semedo (nine tackles, two for loss) helped clean things up at the second level when the defensive line wasn’t shutting things down before they could get started, which wasn’t often.
Senior lineman Darius Stills had 31/2 of the team’s 101/2 tackles for loss, including 21/2 sacks, and fellow linemen Akheem Mesidor and Jeffrey Pooler each added a sack. It’s all part of a three-game opening stretch that finds WVU ranked eighth nationally in total defense (268 yards per game) and 13th in scoring defense (19.3 points per game), with two overtimes included in those totals.
But Brown warns that a nice start is all that it amounts to at this point.
“I think it’s probably a little early to say that we’ve arrived,” Brown said. “We played week one [against Eastern Kentucky] and we were better than them, week two [in a 27-13 loss to Oklahoma State] we just played OK, and then I thought we played exceptionally well against Baylor and that was due for a couple reasons; our guys played extremely hard and extremely physical. And if you’re going to play hard and you’re going to play physical and you’re going to do what you’re coached to do, then we’re going to have a chance every week.”
With Saturday’s game opening a stretch of five league games in five weeks, Brown said the importance to find consistency is paramount.
“But we’ve got to continue to maintain that,” Brown said. “I think when you start talking about quality defensive play, those are the defenses that show up week in or week out regardless of the opponent, regardless of home or away, it doesn’t matter, they show up each and every week and they’re productive. My hope is and our defensive staff’s hope is that we get to that point. I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but I do think we have some guys capable of playing at a high level and are really pushing the rest of our guys.”