By Cam Huffman
In every preseason analysis of the West Virginia University football team, it was mentioned somewhere that the defense had to improve if the Mountaineers hoped to win enough games to play in a bowl for the 12th straight season.
It was no big revelation. Last year’s WVU defense finished 114th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, giving up more than 38 points per game, and the 472.46 yards per game it allowed ranked 108th in that category.
With Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey off to the NFL, it was clear that WVU was not going to put up enough points on offense to consistently win shootouts. To put Ws on the board, Keith Patterson, who took over for Joe DeForest as defensive coordinator, was going to have to hold opponents a little more in check.
So far, so good.
After three games, the Mountaineers (2-1) rank 16th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 13.3 points per game, and 31st in total defense, giving up 321.3 yards per game.
That’s good news for WVU fans, but it means very little to Patterson.
“In college football, you don’t have time to sit and dwell on what you’ve done,” he said. “We have to move forward. We’ve got another good opponent in Maryland coming up, and we have to continue to build.”
Patterson knows that the statistics may be a little misleading. WVU opened the year at home against William & Mary, a Football Championship Subdivision team that had some major struggles in 2012, and this past Saturday it brought a Georgia State team to Morgantown that is in its first year as an FBS team and widely considered the worst in college football’s largest division.
The Mountaineers were able to hold an Oklahoma offense that combined for 85 points in its two other contests — wins over Louisiana-Monroe and Tulsa — to just 16 points on its home field in a 16-7 loss in between the two home games, but as Patterson mentioned, the task will get much more difficult with some powerful offenses like Maryland, Oklahoma State and Baylor ahead.
The Terrapins, who will play WVU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md., rank 10th in the country, averaging 554 yards per game. Oklahoma State, which will make the trip to Morgantown on Sept. 28, ranks 37th with 487.7 yards per game, and Baylor, which leads the country at 736.5 yards per game, will host the Mountaineers on Oct. 5.
That’s a difficult stretch for any defense, but one head coach Dana Holgorsen is confident his team can handle.
“I’m very pleased with the production they’ve put out on the field there,” said the third-year coach, downplaying the notion that the numbers have more to do with the competition than any major change the group has made. “They’ve continued to get better each and every week, and Maryland brings a different test to us, because they’ve got two wideouts (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who started his career with the Mountaineers) that are as good as anybody in the country. That will be a good test for us.
“Keith Patterson’s doing a great job for us on that side of the ball, and I look for them to continue to improve.”
To do that, Patterson believes his team has to cut down on the big plays it’s allowing. WVU is holding opponents to 5.2 yards per play, and they’ve converted just 30 percent of their third down tries. In the red zone, Mountaineer opponents have scored touchdowns on just three of eight trips, and WVU has produced six turnovers and five sacks in three outings.
Those numbers are mostly solid, but there are some others that are cause for concern. The Mountaineers have given up a pass of longer than 30 yards in all three games and a rush of more than 30 yards in the last two. That included a 65-yard touchdown scamper for Georgia State’s only score of the game last weekend — when WVU lined up wrong on defense.
“That stuff has to stop happening,” said Patterson. “Obviously, that’s my fault, and I’ve got to get that corrected. It shouldn’t be that difficult to be able to get lined up and make sure you’re gap sound and not outflanked. That’s been the cause of most big plays all year.”
The Terps, Cowboys and Bears thrive on those quick strikes. To truly be an improved defense, WVU will have to make its opponents earn everything they get over the next three weeks. If not, the numbers could suddenly look a lot more like they did this time last year.
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The Big 12 Conference announced Monday that WVU’s Sept. 28 home game against Oklahoma State will have a noon kickoff. The game will be televised by ABC, ESPN or ESPNU, with a decision on the network coming following this weekend’s games.