Mountaineers Must Worry About Themselves First
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–West Virginia’s defense will face plenty of challenges in Waco Thursday night.
The Mountaineers not only are meeting a Baylor squad that is undefeated (7-0) and No. 12 in the country, but they also will be trying to slow down one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the country.
The Bears are one of just three FBS teams currently averaging over 200 rushing yards and also 280 passing yards per game. BU, which is posting 202.7 rushing yards and 281.4 passing yards, joins Oklahoma (252.1 rushing and 346.2 passing) and Central Florida (233.9 rushing and 327.5 passing) in that department.
Baylor also averages 38.9 points per game, which is the third-best mark in the Big 12 and the 12th-best in the FBS ranks.
The Bears present plenty of problems, but first the Mountaineers must worry about themselves.
Injuries took both defensive end Taijh Alston and bandit linebacker VanDarius Cowan out of the lineup earlier this year. Starting spear safety JoVanni Stewart decided to transfer out of WVU midseason, and recently linebacker Josh Chandler and bandit Quondarius Qualls have each been added to the medical list. Chandler will miss several games with a knee injury suffered at Oklahoma, and WVU head coach Neal Brown listed Qualls as “doubtful” for the matchup with Baylor.
Without Chandler and Qualls, cat safety Sean Mahone and free safety/cornerback Josh Norwood are West Virginia’s only remaining defensive players who have started every game to this point in the season.
“Obviously moving guys around isn’t the best scenario, but I think they are getting better every day,” said WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “We would rather have had these guys getting reps back whenever we started, but it is what it is. We’re trying to get better each day, each period.”
Without Chandler, Exree Loe will likely get his second start at will linebacker. Kwantel Raines, who also plays spear safety, is getting reps at will linebacker as well, and the redshirt freshman will be second string at both the will and spear positions.
Qualls’ absence creates issues at bandit, because his top backup, Cowan, is also unavailable. Zach Sandwich, who has seen action in five of WVU’s seven games in 2019, is available at the bandit, and West Virginia’s coaches have indicated that true freshman bandit Jared Bartlett will see his first collegiate action against Baylor. The plan is still to redshirt Bartlett, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Suwanee, Georgia, but he can play up to four games and not lose a year’s eligibility. Brown said that one of those four will come Thursday in Waco. On top of Sandwisch and Barlett, the Mountaineers’ three top middle linebackers – Dylan Tonkery, Shea Campbell and Jake Abbott – all are capable of seeing time at the bandit as well.
Not all the injury news for WVU is bad. Senior cornerback Keith Washington, who started the first five games of the season but then missed the last two with an injury, is expected to be back in the starting lineup Thursday. Thus West Virginia’s original secondary, with Washington and Hakeem Bailey at the corners and Mahone and Norwood at the deep safeties, will be together again in Waco.
The lineup juggling is something Koenning would rather not do but really can’t control because of all the injuries.
With a record of 3-4 and having lost three straight, the temptation for the Mountaineer is to look only at the big picture that comes with wins and losses. But Koenning wants his players to first concentrate on the small details that lead to overall improvement.
“When I was at North Carolina, we had a guy come in, and he started stacking pennies,” recalled Koenning of his time as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator (2012-14). “He kept stacking pennies and stacking pennies to show the players that you can be wealthy if you just stack pennies together.
“We’ve just got to keep stacking practices and keep stacking periods, keep stacking them and get better and better.
“You either are setting forth your destiny or you’re repeating your history,” he concluded. “Our eyes and our attention are moving forward, because we don’t want to repeat the history of the last three games.”