When the West Virginia University football team played at Missouri last month, the Tigers were able to exploit some poor tackling by the Mountaineers to run past WVU that afternoon.
Since that day, West Virginia (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) has committed itself to cleaning up those mistakes on defense. Saturday will test those tweaks when No. 11 Texas (3-1, 1-0 Big 12) visits Milan Puskar Stadium (3:30 p.m. on ABC).
WVU missed 22 tackles in the loss at Missouri, with at least five missed opportunities for sacks on Tiger quarterback Kelly Bryant. Texas, like, Missouri, has a large quarterback in junior Sam Ehlinger who is not afraid to take off with the ball.
“[Ehlinger] is a tough runner,” junior defensive tackle Darius Stills said. “You have to play your assignments or he is going to make you look dumb. If we play our game, play our gaps and tackle, we should be fine.”
Throw in sophomore running back Keontay Ingram — listed at 6-foot and 220 pounds — along with former quarterback turned running back Roschon Johnson (6-2, 220) — to go with the 6-3, 230-pound Ehlinger and the Mountaineers will have their hands full. To combat that, West Virginia has gone back to basics to get its fundamentals right.
“With these running backs we’ve faced, especially versus Kansas, we’ve looked through the whole tackling technique in practice every day,” defensive lineman Darius Stills said. “You have to bend your knees, especially against these backs we are facing this week, who are 230, 240 [pounds]. If you tackle them up high, they are going to shrug you right off.”
So the idea is for West Virginia defenders to go after the hips, legs and ankles. Defensive line coach Jordan Lesley has been working with the Mountaineers on “throwing their bowling ball” — another way of saying he’s working on the WVU defenders getting low and getting their hands on ball carriers.
“When you’re in a game, you don’t think about sinking your hips and throwing your bowling ball,” Stills said. “You’re just trying to get him down. But working techniques day in and day out just helps improve your tackling game.”
West Virginia has been noticeably better at bringing down opposing ball carriers in wins against North Carolina State and Kansas, but when the degree of difficulty gets turned up this week with the Longhorns coming to town, it will stay up for a while.
WVU hosts Iowa State and quarterback Brock Purdy — who was very good against the Mountaineers last season — a week from Saturday. The week after that, it’s a trip to Oklahoma to take on a three-headed backfield monster of quarterback Jalen Hurts along with running backs Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon. On Halloween, WVU has to visit Baylor and a much improved Bears team.
Not falling back into the bad habits that caused problems for West Virginia at Missouri and following through on Lesley’s plan will be one of the keys to navigating October’s tough schedule.
“There are a lot of different ways to tackle, and what they are emphasizing isn’t a whole lot different,” senior defensive tackle Reese Donahue said. “Sometimes a shoestring tackle is the only way, but when they are coming right at you keeping your shoulders square and getting into good position is important. We’re spending a lot of time this week on watching and targeting the back hip. By staying there, you don’t open yourself up to cutbacks, which is what a lot of good runners are looking for. Stay on that back hip and prevent the cutback.”