By Cam Huffman
Through five games, the Red Raiders lead the Big 12 in total defense, giving up just 210 yards per game, rushing defense (92.6 ypg) and pass defense (117.4 ypg).
“Defensively, they're one of the top teams in the country,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “They have given up 200 yards per game, so people haven't moved the ball on them. We were in here trying to figure out creative ways to get first downs. They do a good job against the run, they do a good job against the pass and they create turnovers, and we're going to have to play as good as we have all year offensively.”
Holgorsen's comments may have come partly from respect, but they may have also been a way to keep his team — coming off a big win at Texas and with a showdown with Kansas State looming — motivated on the task at hand.
Texas Tech's defense is certainly better than the one that finished 115th in the nation in total defense a year ago, giving up more than 485 yards per game, but just how much impact new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, the fourth man to hold his position in as many years, has had is difficult to determine.
It's not as if Texas Tech put up the numbers against Oregon, Baylor and Arizona.
The Red Raiders' first three opponents were Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico — three teams from lesser conferences with a combined record of 8-9 so far this season —but they did show a similar effort in a 24-13 win over Iowa State to begin Big 12 play.
Last week's 41-20 loss against Oklahoma, though, may have provided some insight into how the Red Raiders stack up against an elite offense. In its first loss of the season, Texas Tech allowed 380 yards of total offense —259 passing and 121 rushing — as the Sooners found the end zone five times.
The Red Raiders did force a fumble in that game, and the seven turnovers, including four interceptions, that they have forced this season have caught the attention of WVU's Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Geno Smith, who hasn't thrown a pick all season.
“They do a great job a making it tough on quarterbacks,” said Smith. “They get a lot of interceptions and turnovers. They really make things complex with the way they react to the ball. They do a great job or reading the quarterback's eyes and reacting to the ball.”
The Red Raiders' success against the pass, Holgorsen said, is due largely to their scheme.
“They're not very tricky,” he explained. “They're very, very sound and are never out of position. They blitz eight percent of the time.
“They're not a gimmick defense — they're a sound, effort defense. They play hard, and their guys are in position. That poses problems when you don't know what they're going to do and that aggravates you from a game plan standpoint. We can come up with a bunch of plays, but it's hard to execute against them.”
While many view the minimal blitz attempts as a positive for the Mountaineers, who struggled a little against constant pressure against Maryland and took a little time to adjust to that strategy at Texas, Holgorsen explained that the lack of a blitz can sometimes make things harder on the offense.
“When you blitz, you are taking chances,” he said. “Blitzing means taking chances, and pressuring means taking chances. You are taking people out of position who help prevent the score if you put the ball in play. By not doing that, they're covering more ground.
“They have more people in coverage, and if you happen to complete the ball, they have more people going to it. They're in position to make plays.”
That's a big reason why safeties Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson are both in the top 25 in the league in tackles, combining for 12 stops per contest
“They play quite a bit of people,” said Holgorsen. “The safeties are the guys that always show up (on tape). No. 12 (Johnson) and No. 16 (Davis) have been around there for a long time. They're both seniors. Those are the two guys on defense that I remember from when I prepared against them three years ago. They're big kids, they come downhill a lot and are the two leading tacklers.”
Holgorsen clearly has respect for the Texas Tech defense, but he's also confident his Mountaineers, who are scoring 52 points and racking up more than 570 yards per game, will have an answer.
“Every defense poses challenges,” he said. “And every defense we scheme to attack.
“It's all about staying on the grind, and if these guys want to win a championship, then they need to do that.”
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