MORGANTOWN, W.VA. — When the Mountaineers needed it most, their defense was there to answer the call.
The unit may not have pitched a shutout, but it made all the plays necessary to allow West Virginia to pull out a vitally important 27-21 victory over Baylor in double overtime.
WVU held the Bears to just 14 points in regulation, which is a low for the Mountaineers against a Big 12 team in the Neal Brown era. The home club also limited BU to just 256 yards of total offense from an opponent that averaged 431.2 yards and 35.2 points in putting together an 11-3 season in 2019.
“That a good Baylor team with a lot of returning players,” noted Brown, whose squad improved to 2-1 on the season with Saturday’s victory. “They are really well coached and have an experienced quarterback (Charlie Brewer) who has figured out how to win close games. But today, West Virginia found a way to win, and that’s the story line of this game.
“I was really pleased with our defense overall. I thought Coach (Jordan) Lesley and Coach (Jahmile) Addae did a great job with our game plan,” said Brown of his co-defensive coordinators. “Our front seven played really well. In the back end, we gave up some passes, but we also made some plays against the pass.”
Baylor averaged 153.0 rushing yards per game last season and posted 203 against Kansas last week in BU’s 47-14 season opening game win.
But West Virginia limited Baylor’s dynamic running back duo of John Lovett to 23 rushing yards and Trestan Ebner to nine. As a team, the Bears netted just 27 yards on the ground and averaged only 0.8 yards per attempt, as WVU came up with six sacks and 11 tackles for lost yardage.
“On defense, we talk about takeaways, sacks, tackles for loss and red zone defense,” explained Brown. “Today, we won the game because we had several takeaways (two), played our tails off in the redzone and then created six sacks and numerous tackles for loss.”
Though he had plenty of help, WVU senior nose tackle Darius Stills was a force throughout the game. While he was listed with four tackles, it felt like he had 10 times that amount. Of his stops, 2.5 were sacks and 3.5 were TFLs.
“I thought Darius Stills played like the (Big 12) Preseason Player of the Year he is,” stated Brown. “I thought he played extremely well.
“Also Tony Fields had 10-plus tackles, Josh (Chandler-Semedo) with two TFLs, Alonzo Addae was big again today, as was Tykee Smith. And Dreshun Miller had a huge interception.”
Stills seems especially effective against Baylor. He also had 10 tackles and three sacks against the Bears last year in BU’s hard-fought 17-14 win in Waco.
“I just go with the game plan the coaches put in,” said the 6-foot-1, 285-pound senior from Fairmont, West Virginia. “We trust that as a team. At the end of the day, we just did our job.”
Normally a nose tackle, Stills also moved out to defensive end a number of times Saturday, seeing more snaps on the edge than he has in any other game in his college career.
“Coach (Lesley) let me have some freedom this week, and I got a little love outside,” smiled Darius, who typically lines up next to his younger brother, Dante, on WVU’s defensive line. “I took advantage of the opportunity and was glad I got a little space for once to work my moves.”
Darius was a big part of a Mountaineer defense that limited Baylor for the first 60+ minutes. WVU safety Tykee Smith came up with the big interception in the second overtime session that ultimately allowed the Mountaineers to dance off the field with the victory.
The Bears tied the game at 21-21 with a 25-yard throwback to tight end Ben Sims on the final play of the first OT session. BU got possession to start the second overtime period, and again tried for the big play right off the bat. Brewer’s pass to the back of the end zone wound up in Smith’s hands, though, giving the football back to WVU’s offense. Four plays later Mountaineer running back Leddie Brown banged into the end zone for the win.
It was all set up by Smith’s clutch pick.
“We kind of figured they’d take another shot, because they connected on the one in the first overtime. They wanted to keep the momentum going,” explained Smith. “I saw the running back going straight down the middle of the field and the quarterback lobbed it up. That allowed me to make a play.”
Smith’s interception was the biggest of the many big defensive plays for WVU’s defense Saturday. In most every way, that defensive effort allowed West Virginia to improve to 2-1 on the young season.
“I’ll say this, winning is hard. In COVID times, it’s even harder,” WVU’s second-year head coach sighed in relief after the victory. “That was a great program win. On a day a ton of things went wrong, we found a way to win. That may sound simple, but teams can find ways to lose. Today we found way to win, which is all that matters. I’m never going to apologize for a win.
“Now we’ve got to get way better offensively, but my hope is in the future we can point back to this game, this second half, and finding a way to win and not lose.
“We won the game because of our defense and special teams … and we didn’t screw it up on offense,” concluded Brown. “We’re going to take it. We were gritty. We’ll worry about the negative stuff in the bye week, clean it up and get ready for Kansas.”
The Jayhawks come to Morgantown on Oct. 17.