In the aftermath of a loss, good performances or positive notes are often overlooked or obscured in the wake of postmortems and analysis on how to fix problems that were blamed for the defeat.
And when one of those positives results in a school record, as Winston Wright’s 217 yards of kickoff returns did, anything else that made a mark on the plus side of the ledger is shoved even further into the background.
Wright’s performance was surely worthy of praise. He broke out twice on five kickoff return attempts, racing 98 yards with one in the first quarter to set up WVU’s first touchdown and a 48-yarder that positioned it at midfield in the final frame. He also had a 29-yarder in the third quarter to put the Mountaineers in solid field position at their own 35-yard line.
All of that, however, obscured a showing that was perhaps even more remarkable. Akheem Mesidor, playing his first game on the interior defensive line, racked up nine tackles, including 1.5 behind the line, in a bravura performance.
“If you talk about people that played well, Akheem Mesidor, he played like a dude,” WVU coach Neal Brown said simply. “If you want to know how I wish all 22 played, watch how he plays.”
While statistics can sometimes be deceiving, this is a case in which they were enlightening – if not eye-opening. Nine tackles for a defender playing on the nose over the center or in the gap between center and guard is akin to a 15-catch, 220-yard day for a receiver, or a 250+ yard afternoon for a running back. For comparison’s sake, look at Darius Stills’ 2019 numbers. In 12 games he had 47 tackles – an average of just under four per game. Mesidor more than doubled that total. John Thornton had 51 tackles on West Virginia’s top-rated defense in 1996. Mesidor could pass that, if he keeps up at this rate, in half a season.
What’s more, the showing came in his first game at the position, against a quality opponent. After a 2020 season in which he played at defensive end, Mesidor made the move down inside, where more contact, more traffic, more physical play, more everything exists.
“The first play of the game, if he doesn’t make the tackle on a bubble screen to the field away from him — and he’s the nose guard — it probably scores,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said in recapping his performance. “And you don’t have to look any further than that play. Show me another nose guard that’s going to make that play. We’ve got to get 10, 12, 13, 21 other guys playing the way that guy does,”
Expectations were high for Mesidor despite the move – one that wasn’t given full degree of difficulty rankings heading into the season. It’s an entirely different world out on the end than is in the center-guards triangle, where a number of different skills are demanded. However, after a freshman season in which he recorded 32 tackles and five sacks in a backup role on the outside, he made the transition seamlessly. He even foresaw a continuation of his good play coming prior to the move.
“I’m expecting to have a little more attention, but it shouldn’t be that much of a difference,” he said prior to the season (Mesidor has not been made available to the media since). “At the end of the day, football is football. In the film room, and in practice, watching other teams, I am going to scheme against them the same as they scheme against me.”
Whatever Mesidor schemed, it worked. He built on the confidence gained last year, in which he had games against Kansas and Iowa State in which he had six tackles, giving an inkling of his ability to pile up stops. Add in the effort highlighted by Brown and Lesley, and he set a new personal best.
It would be unfair to expect such numbers to continue in every game. That’s not the way West Virginia’s defense is built, and the Mountaineers do have several other defensive linemen who are capable of disruption and big plays, not to mention second-level defenders who routinely get to the ball. (Sean Mahone and Josh Chandler-Semedo, who had 11 and 10 tackles, respectively, are two of those.) Mesidor’s defining performance, though, makes him a candidate to be yet another defender Lesley and the coaches can build around.