By Cam Huffman
— What’s wrong with the defense?
West Virginia has played at home twice this year, and as fans walked out of Mountaineer Field both times — a 69-34 win over Marshall and a 31-21 win over Maryland — that was the most common question being tossed around by the folks in gold and blue.
It’s tough to blame them. In those two contests combined, WVU’s new 3-4 look gave up 896 yards, including 718 passing yards, allowed 46 first downs and 55 points — not numbers that are going to get anybody talking about the Steelers’ Steel Curtain defense of the ’70s.
But in the postgame press conferences, the talk from the WVU coaches has taken on a much different tone than the banter in the parking lots. Coach Dana Holgorsen, defensive coordinator Joe DeForest and co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have all spoken positively of the effort, and the results, on that side of the ball.
What gives? Are the fans and the coaches watching different games? Do these new coaches not know what they’re talking about? Do they not have high expectations?
What it comes down to is a change in philosophy that Mountaineer fans are either going to have to learn to understand — or look into the pros and cons of Rogaine to replace the hair that they’ve yanked out and thrown away.
In the Big East, and even before that, playing good defense meant shutting teams off the scoreboard and keeping the total yardage under 300. But in the Big 12, that’s about as realistic as getting Cookie Monster to eat a tossed salad.
To this point in the 2012 season, Big 12 teams are averaging 503.53 yards of offense, 80 more yards than teams in the Big East and 41.5 points per game, two touchdowns more than teams in WVU’s former conference.
To put it simply, if WVU’s goals are to post the numbers that the 1996 or 2010 defense put up, it’s setting itself up for failure.
That doesn’t mean the new staff is satisfied watching teams run up and down the field as if they’re running post-practice sprints. They just want their players to understand that giving up a big play isn’t the end of the world.
“The mentality that needs to exist on defense is to have a short memory,” said Holgorsen. “That’s one of the reasons Joe DeForest is here and Keith Patterson understands that mentality, as well. There are so many great offenses in the Big 12, and if you think we’re just going to shut them down, you’re nuts. What you have to do is just line up and keep playing, no matter what happened the previous play or previous possession. You have to have a short memory and execute your job on the next play. If you give up a couple of touchdowns, you have to figure out how to keep your focus and get out there and get a key stop.”
The statistic that matters most to this Mountaineer defense is turnovers. WVU isn’t a team that’s going to march down the field three or four yards at a time on offense and put together a 20-play, 80-yard drive. It relies more on the quick strike and big plays, and that’s the same approach it’s taking on defense. Chunks of yardage can quickly be negated by taking the football away.
In the two home games, WVU has recovered three fumbles and recorded a pair of interceptions, and it’s scored twice on defense, a 43-yard Isaiah Bruce fumble return against Marshall and a 51-yard Doug Rigg fumble return against Maryland.
The Mountaineers have also hounded opposing quarterbacks, recording 10 sacks in three games. That’s paired with 29 tackles for loss. The key to slowing down a Big 12 offense, the coaches believe, is getting them off script, and that’s what negative plays can achieve.
“We try to create turnovers and finish plays,” said Rigg, a junior linebacker. “I think we’re getting better and better. We had more turnovers (against Maryland) than we did all year, so I think we’re improving a little bit each day.”
“Anytime you hold an opponent to 21 points or less, that’s pretty good,” he said after the Maryland victory. “I think our kids grow each and every week, they recognize their mistakes when we show them on tape, and I think we’ll be fine. We’re not quite where we want to be, but we’re getting there.”
Mountaineer fans just need to realize that “there” might not be the same as it’s been in the past. And in the Big 12, that might be OK.