Improved Red Raider Defense Serves As Latest Challenge
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia came out of the TCU game with a dose of disappointment, but also the knowledge that the potential remains for a solid season with a significant game on the horizon.
The Mountaineers played arguably the Big 12’s best team down to the final possession, and it was the self-inflicted wounds, as much as the Horned Frogs, that caused the defeat. A pair of turnovers, a missed field goal, a handful of assignment issues. But it’s a league with little margin for error, and that continues as the Mountaineers ready for a freshly ranked and vastly improved Texas Tech team which sits at 4-1 overall, 1-1 in the conference.
The most glaring upgrade has been on defense, where the No. 24 Red Raiders, among the nation’s worst across nearly every category a season ago, are giving up 27.8 points per game. That still rates as eighth in the Big 12 with seven more games left. But it’s a significant improvement upon the 43.5 allowed a season ago along with the 554 yards of offense per game and an average of more than seven yards per play in 2016.
Those numbers are down to 437 and 5.5, respectively, which will give head coach Kliff Kingsbury a fighting chance in trying to rebound from a 24-26 start over his first three years, including a 5-7 mark last season that included a fourth straight losing record in the Big 12. The results, according to defensive coordinator David Gibbs, are tied to two aspects: Limiting the big play, which burned and buried the Raiders the last two seasons, and an infusion and development of better talent in the program’s fifth year under Kingsbury.
“They are playing clearly a lot better,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “That’s not surprising. We have a lot of respect for coach Gibbs and what he has accomplished. It was a matter of time before he got those guys right. Great job of creating turnovers, playing with a lot of energy, lining up the right way, got a lot more depth.”
It’s not as though Texas Tech is stonewalling offenses. Arizona State scored 45 points in Lubbock, and Oklahoma State put up 41 in handing the Raiders their lone loss. But Tech was able to limit Kansas to 19 points, and hve actually pushed in front of West Virginia in both total and rushing defense. It’s also helped that Kingsbury, taking a page from the Holgorsen playbook, has implemented more of a running game to his pure Air Raid style of the first four seasons.
That’s enabled long possession times and better ability to put games away, along with limiting the number of plays for the defense. Tech’s running game is averaging 163 yards a game, middling in the Big 12 and far below WVU’s 213 yard average. But it has helped balance the league’s second-best passing offense in terms of yards per game, and helped TTU tie OSU atop the league in scoring offense.
“That’s something they have been doing more this year,” Holgorsen said of the emphasis on the run. “I have known Kliff for a long time and we have competed hard against each other. They are concentrating on it more. They’re numbers are up, runs per game are up, yards per rush are way up. It looks like something they are focusing on. It’s concerning based on the fact they do such a good job throwing the ball. When you add that element to it it makes it that much more challenging.”
West Virginia has had success against Texas Tech in the past, sweeping the last three series games and winning twice on the road. Holgorsen is 3-1 versus Kingsbury, and the Mountaineers have won the trio of games largely by limiting Tech to an average of just 26 points per game.
“I give Tony (Gibson) a lot of credit for what we have done against them,” Holgorsen said. “Kliff is as good as their is in college football moving the ball and scoring points. Hopefully we can do the same this year. It will be every bit as challenging.”
Note: Holgorsen also addressed film review of the loss to TCU. What stood out in limiting the Mountaineer offense? The Frogs’ ability to make individual plays on defense while mixing in a handful of new looks and coverages that had WVU’s offense flummoxed for the first half.
“(TCU head coach Gary Patterson) does a great job getting those guys to line up quickly and be in position. The thing that always stands out is the effort they play with and then getting off blocks and making tackles,” Holgorsen said. “We had numbers in the box to block them, but just couldn’t sustain those blocks. They bye week gave them an opportunity to mix some coverages in there that they had not done in awhile. Did he have success with it? Sure he did. Gave us some confusing situations.”