By Cam Huffman
When West Virginia and Baylor met last fall in Morgantown, defense was somewhat of a foreign concept to both teams.
In WVU’s 70-63 victory in its first Big 12 game, the teams combined for 133 points, 180 offensive plays, 1,507 yards and 74 pass completions. It would have been difficult to put up bigger numbers had every defender been handcuffed and carrying bags of water on his shoulders.
But when the Mountaineers (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) hit the road for Waco, Texas, on Saturday to meet up with the No. 17 Bears (3-0, 0-0 Big 12) for an 8 p.m. game on Fox Sports 1, the story will be a little different.
Following its 30-21 upset of No. 11 Oklahoma State last Saturday, the WVU defense is ranked 37th nationally in total defense, allowing 345.4 yards per game. They’re even better when it comes to scoring defense, ranked 35th with 19.6 points per game allowed. That’s a major improvement for a team that ranked in the 100s in both categories in 2012.
What’s changed? For starters, the defensive coordinator. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen originally hired Joe DeForest to take over after Jeff Casteel left to join former boss Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, but after DeForest’s group ranked as the worst in Mountaineer history, Holgorsen made a change, promoting Keith Patterson, who had more experience in that role.
Holgorsen also believes his players learned something from the adversity they faced in 2012.
“We’re not playing 10 true freshmen is probably the biggest difference,” he explained. “Coach Patterson has done a great job of teaching these guys the game. Last year we had a version of his 3-4 defense, and then when he took over before the bowl game he started installing his and his only version of the 3-4 defense. Having one voice, obviously, is the right thing.
“He’s doing a fantastic job of teaching them the game the way he knows how to teach it. Then you couple that with experienced guys. We’re getting great senior leadership with Darwin Cook, Shaq Rowell and Will Clarke and we’ve got guys that are coming on. Our corners aren’t true freshmen like they were last year. So it’s a combination of a lot of things.”
The change at Baylor has been just as dramatic. Although the Bears haven’t really been tested — their schedule to this point has included Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe — they are second in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 7.7 points per game, and 15th in total defense, giving up fewer than 300 yards per contest.
Holgorsen said Baylor’s progression actually began during the 2012 season.
“You look at how Baylor played from (the WVU game on), they got a lot better defensively,” said Holgorsen. “They’ve got a lot of experience coming back. All the guys that bought into what Coach (Phil) Bennett (the Bears’ defensive coordinator) was teaching them just kept getting better. They’re doing the same stuff with the same people. They’re just a lot better at it.”
The real test could come this weekend. Although WVU’s offense is a far cry from the one it put on the field in 2012 at this point, it does have a few more weapons than the teams Baylor has faced so far.
The Mountaineers faced a good offense at Maryland and a better offense at home against the Cowboys, but the Bears should be the best they’ve seen.
“We’ll see how they do this week,” said Holgorsen. “We’re playing the best offense in college football in Baylor. Last year, there were so many experienced offenses that we faced — this Baylor team being one of them. You’ve got to be able to step up to the challenge each week, and our defense is buying into that.”
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Holgorsen said during Monday’s Big 12 conference call that although Clint Trickett didn’t put up huge numbers in his debut as the WVU starting quarterback — he completed 24 of 50 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown, but threw two interceptions — he was happy with how Trickett handled the unique assignment of becoming the Mountaineers’ third starting quarterback in five games.
“He reacted well,” said Holgorsen. “I kind of got a sense that he was going to do that, just because he’s got experience and he’s been around the game his whole life.
“How we coach offense is foreign to him. How we play offense is foreign to him. It’s going to take some time for him to really grasp that, and we’ve known that. But being able to get him out there and just watch him react to the game of football, he did well. He got the ball out of his hands, he kept the play alive a lot and he kept his eyes down field. He got knocked around a little bit, but that doesn’t bother him. He jumps right back up and gets ready to play the next snap. He reacted well to the situation, and I’m really proud of how he did that.”
Holgorsen said he’ll evaluate all three quarterbacks — Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress — on their play in practice this week as well of the health of Trickett, who injured his shoulder in the fourth quarter against OSU, and Childress, who was ruled out against OSU because of a chest injury, before making a decision about who will start against the Bears.
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Senior running back Charles Sims and sophomore punter Nick O’Toole were honored by the Big 12 for their performances against the Cowboys.
Sims, who had 157 all-purpose yards — 60 rushing, 82 receiving and 15 kickoff return — was the Co-Offensive Player of the Week along with Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, who rushed for 137 yards in a win over Tulsa.
O’Toole was the Special Teams Player of the Week after averaging 44.6 yards on eight punts against OSU. He placed two inside the 20-yard line and had three punts of more than 50 yards.