West Virginia’s Defense Not Finishing Plays, Drives, Foes As Desired
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There’s that mantra again, the one that showcases the mentality of West Virginia’s defense.
Dawgs. Tony Gibson’s unit is supposed to play like one, ferociousness, effort, tenacity, a pack mentality. It’s a terms derived from Gibson’s alma mater, Van High School in southern West Virginia. Nicknamed the Bulldogs, the verbiage changed to simply Dawgs as WVU gained a reputation as an aggressive, hard-hitting unit that took chances.
But so far this year, youth and inexperience at key spots like corner, safety and nose tackle have forced Gibson into backing off of his gambling style, instead settling on a more cautious approach.
“The whole thing we use is the Dawgs,” Gibson said. “It could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. But the biggest thing with that is we’re a different breed. That’s the mentality we want. We get somebody down, we want to choke people out. That’s our goal. We haven’t been able to do that yet.”
Much of that is because the Mountaineers, use to putting corners on an island and bringing pressures from a myriad of angles and rather nebulous alignments, have had to protect the back end to avoid allowing the big play. WVU has been burnt for long touchdown passes against all three foes, with scores by East Carolina and Delaware State going for 95 and 81 yards, respectively.
If Gibson can’t truly trust his corners to hold up in cover one or zero, he can’t apply the desired numbers to collapsing the pocket, forcing the pace and tempo of play and dictating to offenses rather than being dictated to. That’s the conundrum the Mountaineers face entering Big 12 play at Kansas this week, against a Jayhawks’ team that has found a way to throw it successfully thus far, albeit against a trio of non-Power Five foes in losing two of the contests.
“East Carolina can throw the ball,” Gibson said. “Virginia Tech found that out. They were up 17-7 before getting pounded pretty bad. That tested us. This week’s opponent is a lot better. They can get you. They have good wideouts. Lot of the same wideouts we played last year. For a half we held up nice before we have up some things. But this quarterback is good.”
That’s Peyton Bender, the Washington State transfer who has thrown for 1,030 yards this year thus far. That’s ninth in the NCAA FBS to this point, and Bender and receiver Steven Sims expect to test WVU’s corners in freshman Kenny Robinson and veteran Mike Daniels. There’s also a question as to if Toyous Avery will return at bandit safety, which could force shuffling in more secondary spots as well. That’s not the best set-up, even against a team that should be beatable despite rolling to 32 points and 343 passing yards per game thus far.
“Take all those plays, they are not earning anything,” Gibson said of the handful of missed assignments and blown coverages that have led to long scores. “We are flat out giving it to them. Moving forward, we can’t do that. I told our guys ‘Look, if you keep making that same mistake, it going to cost us a game.’ It did cost us our first game.”
Not that West Virginia isn’t excelling in some respects. The Mountaineers have allowed little more than 22 points per game, have forced five fumbles, recovering two, and gained their first interceptions of the season last week, both by Kyzir White. Foes have converted 12 of 45 third downs (27 percent), but have scored at an 80 percent rate in the red zone (8-10) with five touchdowns.
One of the better stands came against Delaware State when Will Grier fumbled inside WVU’s own 10-yard line. But the defense stonewalled the Hornets, and DSU settled for a chip shot field goal. It brought back similar memories of stands against the likes of Oklahoma State, and it’s one area West Virginia must continue to make strides within.
“Third down we are rolling right now. Don’t jinx that,” Gibson said. “We have been really good on third down. I feel pretty pleased with our third down, our red zone. We could be better. We have had some opportunities there. We shouldn’t have given up a couple plays. It happens. We work on that quite a bit, with good-on-good. Heavy red zone, goal line. We put a lot of effort on it as a staff.”
Yet all-in-all it remains a mix of mistakes and successes. The approach right now is to try to limit the former, and lessen any blows from them, while continuing to build on the latter.
“Good and bad, hot and cold,” Gibson said of the effort and execution. “Not where I need it. The guys who have been here and played in the games get it. It’s something I talk to the kids about. Our mentality here is Dawgs.”